WARREN — In spring 2010, welder and artist Jay Sawyer strapped a nearly 5-foot-diameter sphere of 535 welded horseshoes to the top of his van and drove to the Kentucky Derby.

He wanted to show his circular sculpture “Endless Trot” to as many horse fanatics as possible, in hopes of securing a sale. Before he left Maine, he called his buddy and fellow artist/welder Dave McLaughlin of Liberty, and asked him to accompany him. Sawyer knew McLaughlin was feeling a little blue, and thought a road trip to Kentucky might shake him from the doldrums. McLaughlin did not return Sawyer’s call, so Sawyer went alone.

His goal of selling his piece to a fat-cat horse lover didn’t pan out, and after a few weeks of working the scene, he decided to come home. As he began heading north on the highway, some guy pulled up alongside flashing an ear-to-ear grin and offering a hearty thumbs-up sign.

Sawyer almost drove off the road. It was McLaughlin — or someone who looked just like him. The guy was a spitting image, and it freaked Sawyer out.

He drove straight through to Maine, and when he pulled in the yard of his Warren home, his wife greeted him with the news that McLaughlin had taken his life that very weekend.

Sawyer was devastated. Not only did he have to process the news and begin grieving the death of his friend, he had to wrap his mind around the freakish incident that happened on the highway. He chose to interpret the hand signal from the McLaughlin look-alike as some kind of sign.

“It was as if he somehow came down and said, ‘thumbs-up.’ “

The other thing that Sawyer discovered in the days after McLaughlin’s death was a note, written by McLaughlin to Sawyer. McLaughlin asked Sawyer to carry on his artistic tradition, to lend a hand to his estate in scrapping and cleaning his yard to ensure that his unwieldy collection of 100 tons of assorted steel, iron and other materials would be put to good use.

Sawyer, 50, has begun honoring that request. This fall, he exhibited work in Damariscotta in a show that highlighted the artist-mentor relationship, and he recently began making spheres with steel bands that McLaughlin salvaged years ago from the Brunswick Naval Air Station.

One piece, which Sawyer displays in a sculpture garden in his yard, features a sphere that McLaughlin made years ago suspended within a larger sphere that Sawyer created with the same collection of shear rings. He calls the piece “Late Collaboration.”

Honoring his buddy is the least he can do, says Sawyer. He knows his friend wanted him to carry on in this manner.

In an interview with the Maine Sunday Telegram in 2004, McLaughlin referred to the pile of shear rings and said, “and the plan right now is that I will use up the rings. I will make variations of the spheres until no one is interested.”

In his letter to Sawyer, he wrote, “you should have all the shear rings so you can build on that subject in my absence.”

Sawyer feels humbled.

“I hope he is happy with my attempt,” he says. “I actually have a sense of responsibility now that didn’t necessarily exist before.”

Like McLaughlin, Sawyer is an unlikely artist. He learned welding while studying at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine. He is a hulking man with a big beard and a spicy vocabulary.

Quick with a laugh and sometimes easy-going in his attitude, he refuses to tolerate any measure of art-world arrogance. Although he has sought gallery representation in the past, Sawyer has declined opportunities to partner with established galleries because he is independent by nature and prefers showing and marketing his work on his own.

He met McLaughlin through professional work. They were competitors, vying for salvaging jobs.

As they became friends and developed mutual respect and admiration, they began working together.

McLaughlin enlisted Sawyer’s help for big jobs, and Sawyer turned to McLaughlin for input about art.

Inspired by McLaughlin, Sawyer began making sculptures less than a decade ago. He liked the creative outlet, and enjoyed finding unlikely uses for discarded material. He has never studied art, and found his way by taking chances and experimenting.

In 2007, Sawyer opened his yard as an outdoor sculpture gallery, Stemwinder Sculpture Works and Garden, and invited the public to see his bulky, rusting sculptures. This year, he opened his gallery every Monday from June to October.

His work is getting around. Disappointed with his inability to sell the horseshoe sculpture in Kentucky, he began working the scene in Maine, and this fall succeeded in selling it to the Owls Head Transportation Museum. He has another piece on display at the Boothbay Region Art Foundation in Boothbay Harbor.

This year, for the first time, his income from art sales exceeded his income from his welding profession.

Motivated to honor his late friend, Sawyer vows to keep his art the focus of his work going forward.

“I am so honored to think that Dave is passing the torch,” he says. 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

bkeyes@pressherald.com

Twitter: pphbkeyes