There’s nothing quite like the love of the craft and being able to create something with your own two hands. Whether it’s to create something to share with the world, your family or just for yourself, the very concept of “create” is a crucial element in DIY projects. For Thomas Patsis, the concept of creating something from an idea is not only inspired by automobile culture, it uses the exact same materials as well.
Patsis is a metal artist and founder of Cold Hard Art, a studio shop dedicated to creating sculptures out of used car and tool parts. Growing up in Maine, Patsis was always making models out of LEGOs as well as watching racing programs on TV. That fascination and passion of cars led to him getting a degree in Alternative Fuels & High Performance in Ohio that got him in the circle of motorsports.
While working on Don Schumacher Racing’s Pro Stock team for 6 years, he rediscovered his passion for motorsports art. Today, he’s taken that (welding) spark of creativity and allowed it to grow into a full-blown outlet. Whether that’s creating spyders out of replica Hemi engines or taking an Indy car and making a full-body replica, Patsis uses his knowledge of metal to create totally original pieces that have amassed him a following of fans and admirers on instagram.
Today, we got a chance to talk and find out more about his crafting passion and a bit more behind the Powerbuilt socket robot he made as well.
PB: When you started practicing welding for Don Schumacher Racing, did you ever think that it could grow into something as big as having your own studio?
Not really. The welding, when it started at DSR, was on a race team so welding wasn’t your everyday thing. It was just a, “Hey, well, that's good to know. We want you to be a good enough welder so if you do need to weld on the race vehicle that it's not going to fall off or it's safer than it was.” It was practicing and practicing. With practice I would just make stuff. I figured if I'm going to practice welding. I'll make a piece of art while I'm doing it.
If it turns out good, great. If not, then it’s no biggie because it's still just a piece of art. The art was kind of a by-product of practicing welding. My mom is an artist and she gave me that ability and my dad's a very mechanically inclined person so I got both sides of knowing how stuff works and making it better. Where we're at right now? 10 years ago is not anything [like it]. It's turned into this monster.
[The shop] used to be a two bay garage with two cars in it! It had a little table and a bucket of parts. And now I have four huge, pallet racks, full of buckets of every type of race car. Pieces of junk, you can say. I got NASCAR parts, drag race parts, indie cars, sprint cars and diesel truck stuff. But it's all race car related or high horsepower. And now it's like, I can't move back to a small garage I got so much stuff in the last 12 years. The photos that I try to post don't even show you my surplus. I try not to show my surplus off to make people envious but I got a lot. There's a lot of stuff. It is very colorful in here. It looks like a 12 year old just designed my shop.
Everybody has that thing that they think is cool and you can't tell them that it's not.
PB: What is it about car parts that inspires you and draws your eye?
I just had a talk five minutes ago with an NFL quarterback’s wife. I'm gonna make him something. And I told her, I go, “I know nothing about football, so you don't have to worry me getting all fanboy crazy about this because I don't.” I've had to ask my wife what the guy's name was like four times trying to explain this!
Everybody has that thing that they think is cool and you can't tell them that it's not. Some people love hunting and every minute that they're not working, they're out hunting or they're watching movies or playing music. Everybody has that thing. So for me, it’s race cars. I don't care about football, baseball, politics or anything. If it’s not attached to a race car it's useless. Race car drivers are like astronauts to me; you want to be like them. I don't want to be a football player and all that stuff. I like races, everything ends up going to racing. I've just always been into cars. I like the mechanical things, I guess. As soon as you like race cars, you like anything mechanical, you appreciate that kind of stuff. My mom, being an artist gave me that appreciation.
Most artists are a little, I dunno, they just want to do art and give it away. It’s very weird for an artist because an artist usually pulls from one side of their brain only, meaning their common sense is lacking and their ability to manage money and time is lacking. I've been given a gift now that I have had this reinforced that I see down both sides of the fence. So I'm logically understanding that I need to make art and have fun doing it but I need to do it in a timely manner to make money.
And I don't abuse making money on doing art, but I know I need to make money to keep doing it so I need to keep track of time. I need to keep track of a budget and bills and stuff. And that's okay. That's actually kind of rare talking to other artists that I've known. I go, “You gotta work on that, paying your bills thing or not spend so many hours doing something and then charging so little or making something that isn't very cool and charging too much. Because then you don't get customers come back, you know, that type of thing.”
There's a lot more than just running through the meadows and building stuff.
You can get lost in building something. Sometimes you just gotta go, “I only, I can only spend so much time on this. Cause after that, you're just, you're cutting into the next project or you're pretty much giving this piece away for spending 80 hours and only charging $200 bucks.” You know, you gotta think about all that.
And that's another part: owning your own business. To everybody, it looks like I have fun all the time but it's still a business. All the stress of paying your bills, paying the rent, having material on hand to build something, thinking 10 steps ahead, you know. Like, do I have enough argon for this weekend? You can't go get argon for welding if you run out on Saturday night. There's so much of calculating time, budgets and money. There's a lot more than just running through the meadows and building stuff, right. And that comes from a well different creative obstacles as well.
PB: What are your biggest creative obstacles when you’re working on a project?
I guess the biggest obstacle most of the time is starting a project. No matter if I built something like that before. I built a pro stock car like seven or eight times now that I have templates for it. I've done it before. I feel good about, but still. And sometimes building something from scratch. Like I'm going to be building a car here that I've never done before. The concept of trying to build something from scratch to the big initial hurdle and then, about halfway through a project, go, all right, it looks good.
I start getting all jacked up and I go, “I feel good!” So it's getting to the halfway point of seeing that I'm actually creating something that's good. But other than that, it's always the start to me. It’s getting it where you've started to make something look like something and you go, “Okay, I got it.” And it's also, to me, I guess the first 25% of any project is always the hardest.
PB: Do you have any precondition about what kind of sculpted piece you want to make or would you just start throwing things together until a shape takes form?
It just varies on what [sculpture] I guess. It's a customer piece, after all. If Alex Laughlin sends a picture of this stock car it’s pretty self-explanatory that he wants that stock car and I try to build it as close as I can. Now, if he said, “I want an abstract cartoon version with over emphasized features,” then I go cartoon crazy with it.
It’s one of those things that it just depends on what the customer wants. It's just one of, many different ways to skin a cat, I guess.
[Alex Laughlin] goes, “I just want you to build a robot or a person, you know?” And he sent me a picture. He wanted me to make a stick figure and I go, “I can't make stick figures. I just, I have to go over the top.” I used probably every one [of the sockets], but five of them. So I tried to utilize and fill all the voids in [the sculpture]. It just depends on there's very few times where I don't really have a clue what the person wants.
When I do trophies, [clients] send me pictures of previous stuff or they go, “Hey this is what our logo looks like for the race event.” And I either try to capture a shape out of the logo or make something that pertains to it. Sometimes they just want what I call junk art where I stack race car parts in a sculpture type way and then integrate their logo into it and a tag with the race date and stuff like that. It’s one of those things that it just depends on what the customer wants. It's just one of, many different ways to skin a cat, I guess.
PB: When Alex Laughlin approached you to make the robot sculpture out of Powerbuilt Tools, did you have an idea of how that piece in particular would turn out?
I like shooting from the hip. I have a mental list of stuff I have to get done for due dates and I go, “Okay, [Alex Laughlin] doesn't have an exact due date but I know he wants to get this done before the new year.” So I pulled the box [of sockets] out, dumped it out on the table, organized and saw everything that I had. When you're building a person or a robot, there's two arms, two legs, there's one head and then there's a chest. So I kind of organize the parts a little bit, like going, okay, this could be used for a thigh or leg.
I had that little wooden figurine that you place in different positions that people use to get the ratio of a human. You know, legs and thighs and where your arms would fall say on your hips or how long your legs are, it just gives you a scaling of the human. I personally am not very good at human shapes. I like to do the robot, which can be any shape, but human shapes have to be the right [proportions]. The head can't be too big or it looks like a cartoon character or the if chest isn't big enough it looks slender when it needs to look masculine. So there's a lot with that.
I laid everything on the table. And in one seven or eight hour night just started it and finished it. There was no real idea [for the sculpture]. Alex just sent me a picture. He wanted like a robot person thing that looked like a stick figure. It made me say, “Dude, that would take 12 minutes and you gave me all this! I need to make something cool for you. It needs to be cool.” I've watched a lot of transformers movies in my life and Terminator is one of my favorites. So it had to have that kind of intimidating bad ass characteristic. I guess you'd say it's gotta be evil looking, kind of intimidating.
This is me. I like welding shit together. I like cutting stuff up that you shouldn't cut out.
This one came out like he had like the shocked look on his face. But that's just the way it is with sockets, you know. He was shocked, but he still has a very masculine slender look to him. So he told me make a robot. And so it left [the project] pretty open and just eight hours later I had that thing and I actually wanted to keep it.
Most stuff, pieces I built, I could care less. It’s not too obnoxiously big where he can't move it around. It looks good on a desk or a shelf. Couple of days later, send it off to Alex and God knows where it's going to go now. This is me. I like welding shit together. I like cutting stuff up that you shouldn't cut out.
PB: What would you say is your favorite part of the creative process?
Either it's the halfway point or when it's a hundred percent done. I like the feeling of accomplishment, when you leave the shop and you turn the lights off and you get in your car to go, “Yeah, that was good. I feel good about it.” You know that feeling of accomplishment? Not everybody gets that feeling. Some people don't love their job.
People ask me, why do you get into this stuff? I don't know. I fell out of an airplane and landed here and I haven't left, you know?
Some people haven't found their place in the world and they don't get that from a good day's work. That feeling that only can come from doing something that makes you feel good, I get that [feeling] a couple times a week. Some people don't get that their entire lives.
PB: It feels like you sort of crafted yourself a niche, there doesn't seem to be a lot of others using race car parts and giving them a purpose again. Did you carve out this niche on your own?
[Laughs] Man. That's a good question. Good question…
Honestly, I feel like I can't be fired. Not that I'm just my own boss. I feel like they can't fire me from this job because I'm that guy that parks on the end of the parking lot where there's no spot. I make my own parking spot. Where I'm at right now, I didn't take someone else's job and I didn't follow someone else's model. So I feel like everything that I'm doing, either I'm learning runoff. Like I'm making my rules up as I go.
When I tell people I know what you want it’s because I'm listening to you. I'm not making this up.
People ask me, why do you get into this stuff? I don't know. I fell out of an airplane and landed here and I haven't left, you know? And I don't know, as, as I thought about that, like, yeah, this feels good because it's like, I made my own spot.
As an artist, as me as my personally, I don't like being told what to do. I like working for someone where we all have a common goal, like when I used to build race cars. I'm totally game with teamwork to get stuff done. But now that I'm running the show because I'm the only one here, I don't like to be told what to do. I'm making my rules up. It's hard to be told I'm wrong. I'm very lucky that people trust me to just go, “Hey, I need six trophies made. I need this car made.” And it's very rare that someone says, “Hey, could you do this differently?” So I feel like I'm really good at listening to what they [the client] wants and also trusting me to create something that they need.
When I tell people I know what you want it’s because I'm listening to you. I'm not making this up. It's one of those things that I've done long enough now I can feel confident that, because I've listened to people, I know what your product is all about or what your event is all about. So you telling me I'm wrong is you saying you're wrong. Does that make sense?
With Alex, he wanted to show me this little six socket, man. I go, “I know you don't want that. I know you want something bad ass! I know what you want. Trust me. I'mma make you happy!” Then I made your guy's Powerbuilt guy. I feel, when you do something long enough, it's like telling somebody who's done it a million years if they're wrong. I've done this and you're asking me for it. And I go, okay. I don't think it's arrogant, I just think I have confidence in what I do now where I go, “Okay, I've screwed up enough. [Laughs] I've done stuff good enough every once in a while I guess I’m doing something right!” I think I've got a balance of what you're going to want.
PB: Do you have a particular motivation for getting your work done?
Well, I think me and my wife both have this. We really do our best at customer service because my goal is not to make $10,000 from you in one year and never see you again. I'd rather make a thousand dollars selling you something really nice and have you come back 10 more times. That's a better compliment than just doing something once for somebody. Most people we do stuff for, they come back every year.
It's not always about perfect things. It's just about good customer service.
I mean when we go to restaurants or we buy something from somebody, sometimes the product is okay. But the customer service is so good it overshadows the product. I feel we do the same thing, you know, and I just do art. It's not it's perfect because I'm creating something from race car junk or I'm building it with my hands. But I try to give the people the best I can give.
It's also interacting with people, my dad owns a pizza shop and he does the same thing. He does make really good pizza, but he talks to every customer and treats them like human beings. For me, making a really nice product is great but having really good customer service, like interacting with people and having them going, “Hey, he makes a really nice thing and he'll treat you really good.”
So it’s just a simple fact: if you treat someone good, they treat you good back and if they don't treat you good, then just don't business with that person again. I like making people feel like they got treated very well. It's not always about perfect things. It's just about good customer service.
PB: With regards to family, how much of an adjustment did you have to have for a work/life balance? Has it always been the same and have you always had balance?
I guess the biggest difference from starting to now is before, even with my wife, when she wanted to go do something and [I’ll] be like, “I got this to do, I got this to do.” And I always did that, put stuff up so she would decline on like an invite to something. With Luna [my daughter] running around, I noticed I get way more distracted with her. She wants to go play, I'll drop everything in a second. My wife couldn't turn me away from the welder. Luna rolls up and she's like, “I want a hug or whatever.” I stop working. And she's going to get older. You only get that for a couple of years, then the next phase of what she wants to do.
I feel like just spending more time with those two ladies is the biggest difference from starting to right now.
I actually get to see my daughter more than most people do, because most people have to get up at six in the morning, they work till five and then they go to bed by 9 or 10. So they get to see their kids for two or three hours. I can just see it for most of the day. you know, and we take some days off. I mean, I guess that's been the biggest change in my daily schedule with having a little girl now. I feel like I've gotten better at what I do and that's my normal progress, but I mean, I feel like just spending more time with those two ladies is the biggest difference from starting to right now.
PB: What does the future of Cold Hard Art hold?
That's the question I ask all my friends. I always say, “What are you going to be doing in January?” And they go “Whoa shit. That's a deep question. I've never thought about that.” I really don't know because I've worked 10 hours a day and I get a lot done and sometimes I work 20 hours a day and get nothing done. As an artist, your goal is to get your name out there so you get to do more fun stuff and projects and you continue doing this.
I never want to say make more money because, as much as it's important, I hate the stuff because it makes you do terrible ideas or terrible choices. I'd rather just continue making enough money to be comfortable and do what I do because I like doing this. This is fine.
Everybody's like “You should get employees and stuff.” And I go, “Me getting employees to do the work for me is like paying someone to eat my lunch for me.” I like eating lunch. I like food, why would I want to pay somebody to eat my lunch for me? So having employees, yes, it’s more efficient, but I like working. I like being here and making stuff and doing stuff.
As much as the people that own big businesses go, “You have to get employees or you're stupid.” I go, “Oh, I guess I'm just going to be stupid the rest of my life, I'm going to be happy doing it.” In 10 years, I guess if I'm still in business, my wife hasn't tried to kill me and we haven't had 10 more pandemics trying to shut us down and all that then I’ll have a smile on my face. I guess in 10 years, maybe getting my daughter to help me or maybe start following what my daughter does whenever she feels that's her enjoyable thing to do in life. So I guess that's that.