I never thought I would find myself at a Texas ranch, welding my own lighting fixture, but on a rainy March afternoon outside of Austin, that's exactly what I find myself doing. After a 15-minute drive from South Congress Hotel, we arrive at Jack Sanders's Design Build Adventure. The Texas native is a true representation of Austin's creative scene: an artist, welder, baseball player (Senate candidate Beto O'Rourke regularly plays in his backyard league), and much more.
Sanders's property, affectionately called The Long Time, is something out of a quintessential Southern dream: a quaint ranch house on a five-acre property; a large workshop studio and scrap-metal yard; a baseball field sprawling in the background; two pups running wild; floodplains stretching out to the edges of the property; his friends busy screenprinting bandanas or noodling a banjo on the back porch.
We find ourselves here thanks to West Elm's new Local Experiences initiative, which hosts workshops in woodwork, metalwork, drawing, indigo dying, punch needling, and more in cities like New York, Savannah, Charleston, Detroit, and, of course, Austin. While you wouldn't necessarily think a giant furniture retailer would encourage you to make your own furniture, this is exactly in line with the Brooklyn-based company's ethos and commitment to supporting local artists and artisans.
Back at the ranch, the skies have cleared, but the knot in my stomach has not—I don't know anything about welding. Does it involve sparks? Will I cut my finger off? The subsequent answers to these two questions, as it turns out, are yes and no, respectively.
Jack Sanders, dressed in overalls and cowboy boots, welcomes us with true Southern hospitality—with a can of local Rambler sparkling water, a large and friendly smile, and a coverall jumpsuit to put over our clothes: "You'll need to cover your neck, hands, and feet so as not to burn yourself with the welding sparks," he nonchalantly remarks. My throat thickens. I am not cut out of this, I worry.
He ushers us into the house, where his wife is baking the most delicious-smelling chocolate brownies. He starts explaining the day's schedule: We would start by drawing a plan for the item we would weld. Then, we would visit the scrap-metal yard and pick out our materials. Finally, we would head to the workshop and take turns using the various power tools and the welding torch to bring our vision to life. But first, a safety demonstration.
I take a step back each time Sanders turns on the metal-cutting power saw. A few more metal cuts and I'll be standing in center field—a better position to catch a softball than to dutifully learn how to use scary-looking power tools. But as I reluctantly pick up the first tool to make a practice cut, something happens: This works, it's kind of empowering, and it's not at all scary.
As we take a trip to the scrapyard, my slowly subsiding anxiety is twofold: Will I make it out unharmed? And, more importantly, what am I going to make out of these metal scraps? I'm normally a creative person when it comes to drawing or other child-friendly crafts, but throw me in a scrap yard, and I'm entirely out of my element. That is until my friend Dru pulls our a perforated metal sheet, which had oxidized in the sun.
Suddenly, my mind rushes back to a discontinued West Elm perforated metal sconce I've had my eye on for months. The plan seems ambitious, but I'm diving in headfirst. Filled with excitement, I rush back to Sanders to share my plan. After all, I'll need his help to execute my vision.
Courtesy of West Elm
The metal-cutting portion of my plan goes smoothly. The saw isn't too scary, and I feel empowered with each successful cut and buff. The scarier part comes when the welding mask goes down. Little did I know, the mask goes pitch dark when the spark comes on—a clever safety feature to protect your eyes. But this means you're essentially welding in the dark. As in, you might be welding your own finger without realizing.
My first few welding attempts are mediocre at best. Mastering the art of knowing how to angle the wire, when to inch closer, and when to pull back, is not the most intuitive (for me at least). But after a few tries, I get the hang of it. Besides, I have extra motivation: Just a few more welds and my perforated sconce will be complete. Also, there are margaritas and guac waiting on the other side.
With the last weld on my new creation, I feel an intense sense of pride wash over me. Something that terrified me only a few hours ago now seems almost easy. Just a few hours prior, I never expected to be conquering fears I didn't even know I had, but here I am, in the Texas countryside, welding a lighting fixture as the sun sets over the horizon. Suddenly, I feel as though I'm channeling my inner Jennifer Beals in Flashdance—and I have a sconce to show for it!
Sanders and I assemble the last pieces together, and I head back to the back of the house, where the Design Build Adventure team has installed a spread of picnic tables with free-flowing cocktails, homemade guacamole, and an incoming Southern barbecue feast. As the sun lowers on the horizon, friends come together to sing duets, accompanied by guitars and banjos. We all come together to share our latest creations, and suddenly, I understand the true appeal of Texas.
In the end, the allure of the West Elm Local Experiences is the last thing you'd expect: It's putting yourself into a situation you otherwise never would have found yourself in and enjoying (even falling in love with) the process. Besides, any afternoon that ends with a beautiful sunset, a cocktail, live music, and some barbecue gets an A+ from me.
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Ed. note: This experience was paid for by West Elm. All opinions are the editor's own.