Michigan is home to two sculpture parks created by two talented welders named Tom, both self-taught artists. Separated by about 200 miles, Tom Moran’s work is displayed in his hometown of Onaway, in the northeastern Lower Peninsula. Lakenenland, the home of Tom Lakenen’s “Junkyard Art,” is between Munising and Marquette in the Upper Peninsula. Although the two artists’ styles and techniques are very different, they have similar stories and a common sense of purpose in wanting to show support in their communities and sharing their work with the public.
Tom Moran struggled in high school, but found he liked tinkering
with welding in an unofficial shop class. After graduation in 1978 he
worked in the woods with his lumberjack dad while teaching himself to
weld at night and on weekends. He opened his own shop, and, over the course of nearly 40 years, has built Moran Iron Works into a supplier of massive pieces of industrial equipment shipped around the world. His company has recently completed boats for Michigan companies: a Mackinac Island ferry for Shepler’s and a boat for Pictured Rocks Kayaking.
Growing up in Onaway, Moran remembered the July Fourth parade as an exciting community event with floats supported by local businesses. “It brought the town together, but by the early ’80s, there was almost nobody participating.” He decided to get involved, and created a large sculpture as a tribute to the area’s logging history. Each year since, he’s turned leftover or surplus material into a large rolling work of art. One year it was a 12-foot-tall bust of George Washington; another was a 20-foot Statue of Liberty.
Initially, Moran donated the sculptures to groups that would auction them as fundraisers. Now, he installs them in the free, 30-acre Awakon Park he’s developed at the site of American Wood Rim Company, which once built wooden bicycle rims and steering wheels in the city. The ruins of some of that factory compound dot the grounds, where wide gravel paths wind past Moran’s creations including a giant steering wheel with the slogan “Onaway Steers the World”—an homage to that part of his community’s history. onawaymi.com/awakon
Tom Lakenen learned a bit about welding while in a high school class, and joined the pipefitters after graduation. He moved on to the boilermakers union, where he still works as a welder in construction. Lakenen worked hard and drank hard until the late 1990s, when he quit guzzling beer. Suddenly faced with time on his hands, he decided to assemble scrap metal into sculptures. Large, fantastic, colorful sculptures that look, as he describes them, like “all the things I saw while drinking.”
He displayed his art in the front yard of his Marquette area home until the township officials told him it had to go. When he ran out of space in his backyard, Lakenen envisioned a sculpture park for the public’s enjoyment. He bought 37 acres on M-28, 15 miles east of Marquette, and relocated his pieces to line the trail that he carved through the woods. Since 2003 he’s added a fire pit and seating area, pond, outhouses, a covered pavilion and a stage for concerts. Lakenenland’s population continues to grow, with the number of metal monsters, aliens, dinosaurs and critters, and salutes to the military, miners and lumberjacks, now topping 100. Lakenen accepts donations to support the free park, which is open 24/7 year-round and is a popular destination for snowmobilers. lakenenland.com
Story and photos by Kath Usitalo
This article originally appeared in the 2019 fall/winter issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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