Gregory Tune’s business is, perhaps, an unlikely one. Located at 141 West Anderson (less than a block west of the heart of Happy Holler), you know something funky must be happening here when you see the bench out front made from the tailgate of a truck and other found metal parts. A mustached, pipe smoking road warrior of some mysterious progeny guards the door and a very large metal guitar hovers in the air. The place has the feel of a sorcerer’s playground. And that’s kind of what it is.
Gregory has settled very comfortably into the city that he says has been so welcoming. He feels he’s found his spot on the earth and he’s very happy about that. He got his first name from his grandmother’s maiden name. He values his family history and says one side was full of oil men and the other side was full of water men. His grandfather drilled, perhaps, a majority of the wells in Monteagle. “My daddy was a millwright and my mother was a florist, so I make metal flowers.”
He grew up in California because his grandparents had migrated to the bay area. He drifted a bit after high school. “A buddy said, ‘Let’s go fishing.’ I cleaned the fish because I was good with a knife.” He became a prep cook using those knife skills, prepping at one restaurant in the morning and another in the afternoon. It seemed that would be his direction, but he never made much money.
That may be why he was ripe for a change at age 27. “My brother was an iron worker on the Bay Bridge and at 27 I went to community college to study metal working.” Thirty units were required for graduation, but he wanted to take every class offered. He also made money through the program. When he got to 80 credits, “they told me to go get a job.”
He entered the work force at a time the economy was struggling. His first job paid $8 an hour. The routine was that welders would be hired for a job and then laid off when it was finished. Each time he started back, the pay increased. “I got up to $20 an hour and I was working 80 hours a week. He talked to an older guy who worked the same hours and told him that he never got to know his daughter. That struck Gregory who has a child of his own and didn’t want that to happen to them.
While he was born and grew up on the west coast, but felt a tug to move east. His in-laws had moved to Texas, so with not much in the way of plans, he and his wife drove east. He had a job lined up in the Nashville area, but his wife wasn’t excited about the size of the city. “The further I drove, the greener it got. When I got to the mountains, I knew this was it.” He’d researched and learned that Knoxville had a “24% lower cost of living than California,” and that gave them further reason to settle here.
They moved to Fountain City and he worked for Cherokee Millwright and O.G. Hughes and Sons. He worked with the companies for several years, but ultimately, his wife suggested that he give his art a try. “I would see things in the scrap bin and my eye would twitch. I told myself I would give it a year” That was 2016. By 2017 it was going so well, and he was getting bigger jobs and becoming known. “I said, ‘no,’ maybe five years.”
He has remained connected to the metal working community and other makers via the Knox Makers group, which he joined. He operates the metal shop at their maker warehouse in south Knoxville. He teaches classes and they sell out. “Some people think metal work is magic. I try to let everyone know that anyone can do this.” He also loves Ijams and works with them, previously serving as their featured artist.
This past March he got his own shop at the Anderson Avenue location. The property – a tiny house and a courtyard – was once used by woodworkers. He now shares the property with another metal worker. He loves the location and is interested to see where Happy Holler goes in the next few years.
The work continues to flow. When I arrived he was working on an oven hood for a, beautiful home in Friendsville. He’s gotten involved with non-profits and though serendipity, he found the opportunity to make some pieces for Beaumont Elementary. He noticed an assembly there when he took his daughter in to check out the school. He learned they were celebrating the receipt of a grant for adding art to the school. “I said, well, I’m an artist!”
He was selected to provide an arched entry (which included a banjo and a mandolin) to the playground and a sign proclaiming the play space. “The more you move through Knoxville, the more it wants you,” he said of the experience. He recently checked out Asheville and said, “It reminds me of Sedona. Knoxville is wide open by comparison. No system is in place, but there is an openness to new ideas. I love how scruffy and gritty Knoxville is. There’s a politeness.”
He’s thinking of adding more classes, and he’s thinking of a way to modify a torch so people with limited mobility could do the work. Knox Makers has gotten a grant to build a blacksmith shop and he’ll be involved in that. He’ll continue to be represented at Rossini and Dogwood Arts. He’s also looking to get a piece included in the Arts in Public Places program.
He said something about working with the unemployable youth of America and headed back to his welding. You can drop by the shop to see what he’s up to, but you can also follow him on Instagram (#scrappalachianmetalwork), Facebook and his website.
Ed. Note: Speaking of Makers and such, I’ll have several on the radio on Sunday (WUTK, 90.3 FM, http://www.wutkradio.com) at 10 AM. Ryan-Ashley Anderson and Dominique Oakley will join me to talk about a class offered that afternoon at Smart+Becker by Delaney Smith and Local Awesome at ATypical Market at Relix also Sunday afternoon.