Retired builder transforms tools into insect art

Leroy Mize, of Oskaloosa, looks over his collection of grasshoppers he’s made from old pipe wrenches, one of which is a 4-foot-long grasshopper that requires two people to move.

Leroy Mize is a retired builder who in recent years has turned to art.

One day a couple of years ago, Mize was vacationing in Wichita when he spotted a grasshopper constructed out of a pipe wrench and some horseshoe nails for sale at a gasoline station. The grasshopper had eyebrows, antenna and wings — all made from tools. Mize surveyed the creation and thought, “I could do that, only better.”

One of the first grasshoppers Leroy Mize, of Oskaloosa, made is pictured.

When Mize got home, he drafted a blueprint for the prototype. Within days, he was firing up the blowtorch.

Mize is 71, with salt and pepper hair, gold rimmed glasses and a mustache. In the 1970s and 1980s, Mize and his father built nearly every house on his block in Oskaloosa. Retired now, Mize can’t keep his hands still. Most days, he is in his garage tinkering. Hunkered over a work table, he spends his days welding, hammering and drilling.

Thousands of dollars’ worth of tools spill from Mize’s home garage. He ran a body shop for 35 years, and during his career, he accumulated the machinery and the tools he now uses to make grasshoppers.

“You’ve got to have a torch, and you’ve got to have grinders and air compressors,” Mize said. “You couldn’t build this in your garage if you didn’t have the shop tools to do it with.”

Mize constructs each grasshopper leg from brass, grinding it down and polishing it so it looks as shiny as a mint coin. He gives the grasshoppers feet, grinding and polishing them so they won’t scratch the surfaces they rest on.

The grasshoppers have themes or evoke brand names: There’s a red, white and blue one; a hot pink one. One emulates John Deere tractors. Another mimics Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

When Charlie Summerville, also a builder, saw Mize’s grasshoppers on display at a parts shop in Oskaloosa, he bought one immediately.

“I kind of fell in love with it,” he said.

The art resonated so deeply with Summerville that he offered Mize a freelance project. Summerville, who is pondering retirement, had a 48-inch pipe wrench that he had somehow acquired but didn’t want to sell. He didn’t have use for it. Until he spotted Mize’s sculptures.

Summerville wondered if Mize could make a giant grasshopper and still have it look polished and professional.

Mize took on the project. While most of his grasshoppers take three days, this one took two weeks. Mize plunked $525 into the 4-foot grasshopper, which was laden with brass nuts, $5 a piece. When he was done, Summerville was pleased. He has hauled it to Topeka and Atchison just to show it off.

“It’s mind boggling to people when they see something like that,” Summerville said. “We’ve had a lot of people show up and look, and they’re amazed by that thing. It’s a great conversation piece.”

Artful tendencies

Mize has always had an affinity for art. As a boy, he struggled academically and would doodle and draw in class to entertain himself. Mize has dyslexia, and at the time, no one knew what to do with him. Teachers would assume he wasn’t interested in learning, when the truth was he couldn’t keep up. Once, when Mize was about 15, his grandfather offered to buy him a Corvette if only he could read a book aloud within a year. The year came and went, and Mize couldn’t do it.

“I can probably do 20,000 things that other guys can’t, but I’m not good at reading or math,” Mize said. “It just didn’t make sense to me.”

What made sense was building. Mize’s home, which he built himself years ago, is furnished with objects he has made: rocking horses, oak dressers, a replica of the Tin Man from the “Wizard of Oz.” Often he sees something someone else has created and then tries his own hand at it, striving to improve the original.

“I have never been the type of person who could invent anything from space, but I was always so good with my hands. I could do anything anybody else did and improve on it,” Mize said.

And in the case of the 4-foot grasshopper, Mize might have made the only one.

“I’ve got something most people don’t have, and you can’t just go out there and buy it,” Summerville said.