Too much screen time? Welding classes refocus kid energy

Hearing the loud crackle of a welding gun as sparks burst into the air like personal fireworks, there’s not one student whose eyes don’t widen with excitement and anticipation when pulling the trigger for the first time. 
It’s this feeling that Dominique Martinez, sculptor and owner of Rustic Steel Creations, wants to nurture in Tampa Bay Area youth by offering kids’ welding classes at his warehouse studio off Highland Avenue in South Seminole Heights.

Martinez, known locally for his metal sculptures commissioned by organizations like the Ulele restaurant and the Tampa Bay Lightning, has created and sold pieces all over the U.S. and abroad. What prompted the idea to start welding classes was being forced to pivot during the recession, during which all his projects were on hold.
“No one was buying, development stopped, and I had all these welders sitting doing nothing. Just because I have a butter knife, it doesn’t mean I have to just use it for butter, so I decided to have them teach classes. We have had everyone from attorneys, doctors, and people from all backgrounds coming from all over Florida -- Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, Jacksonville -- to take these classes because no one else offered that. It really helped me get through the recession,” Martinez says.
He had offered youth welding classes during summers since 2013, so when COVID hit, he seized the opportunity to expand the classes, which became even more sought-after as an affordable experience for all. He notes that they’ve had even more girls than boys sign up for some classes.
“Besides the kids, everyone in general is intimidated at first, but once we show them how to weld and they see the sparks fly, they really getting into it, going piece by piece with what they’re creating,” says Joshua Veve, one of the welding instructors at Rustic Steel. “Trade programs, like building, aren’t available in schools or open to the public as much so kids don’t know that this is a path they can take in life, either as a hobby or career.”
All classes -- which are limited to 5 participants at a time -- begin with a safety orientation of the shop, equipment, and gear. Students then can start looking through the heaps of recycled material stored in the 10,000-square-foot facility to find anything from Harley Davidson exhaust pipes to lamps, door knobs, and other scrap metal pieces. Their worktable is also their drawing pad, where they can sketch design ideas in chalk before tacking pieces together. Instructors encourage the students to try simple projects that they can finish during the day, and they can always start something new if there’s still time left over. Over the course of the 4-hour class, students see how they can transform junked material into beautiful artworks.
“Welding is a real confidence booster for kids. It’s danger and excitement, and it literally lights them up by pushing their envelope. It’s such a gift you can give to someone, to empower them and expand on their imagination,” Martinez says.
Because of the success of these classes, they will soon be starting Rustic Steel Academy, which will offer more classes with different types of welding, techniques, fabrication, and metals -- working with the Miller Corporation to get the welding instructors they’ll need for growth. With this, they’ll be the only welding school of its kind on the east coast of the U.S.
“We have basically the demographics go across the board, it doesn’t matter if you’re 10 or 60 years old,” Martinez says. “We didn’t know we would get this type of response, but people are really getting into welding. They find it very therapeutic and engaging, pushing their creativity which they never thought they had, and people need inspiration and outlets for creativity during COVID more than ever.”
Classes start at $250 each, with discounts if you purchase as a bundle.

To find out more about classes, visit Rustic Steel Creations.
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Read more articles by Caitlin Albritton.

Caitlin Albritton is a freelance writer based in Tampa with a BFA from Savannah College of Art and Design and a MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art. When she's not looking at art throughout town, she can be found making it. You can keep up with her visual art on Instagram @caitlinalbritton or on her website. Visit her recent line of inlay “wearable paintings.”