Sparks fly at Liberty Iron Works

Written by Kathy Weiss

Photos by Reggie Morrow

In his own metallic way, Dale Merrill is populating Iowa with extraordinary wildlife, from giraffes and zebras to moose and bison, while his Mount Vernon showroom is home to exotic species, gigantic dragonflies and huge spiders.

No, Dale isn’t a bounty hunter on the Serengeti or a Disney Channel filmmaker. He’s an artist who creates large-scale replicas of a variety of creatures in his studio, Liberty Iron Works. His award-winning metal sculptures are just one facet of a diverse and growing enterprise that’s drawing fans and aficionados near and far.

Dale’s unique metal work is finding its way into homes and gardens, commercial environments and green spaces throughout Iowa. Locally, his artistry is part of a grand staircase in the Marriott Hotel & Conference Center located on the Iowa River Landing in Coralville. Dale and his shop assistant, Seth Ferguson, hand crafted guard rail panels of welded steel finished in a rubbed bronze patina, along with glistening bronze handrails. He also designed matching metal screens for a two-sided fireplace in the Iowa Writer’s Library, completing a visually stunning showpiece for the luxury hotel.

Just a few blocks away, his signature is on a sculpture in the new Coralville Library, slated for completion this month. Placed in the rotunda area as part of a water feature, 30- to 35-foot high blades of steel “prairie grass” mounted on native limestone pedestals stand as a symbol of the natural terrain of our land.

“I’m always trying to keep things fresh,” Dale says of the process of turning metal into art. “There’s that element of being the originator, but also staying a step ahead.”

His residential installations include a twig-style railing for a home in Cedar Rapids, sleek modern steel partitions for a stairwell in Iowa City, and an elaborate gated entry to a pool and patio near the Coralville reservoir. He’s also building a home for his family near Mount Vernon with modern lines and metal-clad siding.

The wildlife segment of his business has taken on a life of its own, with 27 commissions of 12-foot-tall giraffes, a moose, zebra, and a larger-than-life bison that now stands in a park in Prairie City near Des Moines. His reproduction beast of the Great Plains stands 10 feet tall, weighs more than 3,000 pounds and took about 800 hours to create. It has become a community icon, commissioned as part of a beautification project near the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge.

Dale also has incorporated movement into his designs. A 20-foot-high kinetic wind sculpture he created for Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in Newton has seven revolving rings and copper and stainless steel pods that catch the wind. “I engineered it so it would move in a breeze, but also mechanically sound enough to weather a storm,” he says, noting that he occasionally drives by to check its status. “It just makes you smile,” he adds.

With each yard of steel rod and aluminum sheeting, Dale illustrates how a boy who loved to draw and sketch can grow up and make a decent dime from metal. 

Sharing how he got started, he explained modestly, “I just fell into it. I was working at an ag company in Cedar Rapids that fabricated grain trucks and I picked up on welding and fabricating. Then somebody asked me to make some miniature garden fencing.”

Dale recalls his dad, an engineer, asking him after that first sale: “Do you think you could do this fulltime?” That fatherly encouragement was all he needed. “I gave a week’s notice and quit my job and then put together a make-shift catalog,” which he distributed to garden centers throughout the area.

“Lo and behold, I was bringing back good sized orders,” Dale related. He expanded into garden sculptures of dragonflies and insects, along with metal trellises, rustic planters, indoor furnishings and unique home accessories, eventually marketing his wares at art fairs.

“At one point, I was doing 30 art shows a year,” he said, noting that his wife, Kasey, traveled with him back then. Today the couple has two kids and Dale’s business has evolved accordingly.

“I’m now more selective,” he says, citing only three art shows where he currently exhibits: The Iowa Arts Festival in Iowa City in June; the College Hill Art Festival in Cedar Falls in July; and the Two Rivers Art Show in Des Moines in the fall, where last year he won a sculpture award.

It’s often true that our early talents shine brightest later in life. Dale’s choice of a vocation has revived his childhood interest in art and made use of welding classes he took in high school. “But I never had any kind of grasp of how things would come together,” he says.

“Really my passion is to do sculpture. Just turn off the phone, turn up the music and create — that’s what it’s all about.