Former biologist Trey Carpenter turns scrap finds into fish and flora

Trey Carpenter sculpts metal fish art in Burnet

Trey Carpenter at his workshop in Burnet, where he bangs out art from scrap metal. Staff photo by Alex Copeland

Trey Carpenter is a biologist, fisherman, wildlife expert, metal worker, and scavenger — all of which come together to inform his current life as an artist. 

The Burnet resident crafts freshwater and saltwater fish from sheets of scrap metal, most of which he rescues from old air-conditioner panels. He sells his work at festivals, through word of mouth, on his website at watermelondreamsart.com, and at the Ritzy Texan, a Burnet store that promotes local artists. 

Taking his inspiration from the roadside bait shop signs of his youth, Carpenter created his first works to look as if they were corroded from years of battering by salty Gulf winds. He distressed and rusted materials to achieve a vintage coastal patina. 

“I wanted it to look like you rescued it off the side of an old bait house,” Carpenter said. “I was intentionally scratching them up, denting them, kind of antiquing them, which removed a lot of responsibility from me as an artist, you know. I intentionally wanted it to rust. I intentionally wanted it to look old.”

That changed as he moved from hobbyist to artist. 

Carpenter’s foray into metal fish sculptures started as a pastime while he was working full time. As retirement loomed, he reassessed his approach both in terms of what he was creating and why he was doing it. 

“The art thing was just kind of for fun,” Carpenter said. “I liked doing things for people, making gifts and that kind of thing.”

He mostly gifted his creations to friends, who must have been bragging on his skills. Soon enough, someone asked if he’d be willing to sell a few pieces.

“I was kind of waffling on retirement, whether I should or not,” he said. “This came along at the perfect time.” 

Once he started selling, people asked for more specific work. As production geared up, Carpenter nixed distressing his materials, which took time to achieve the right look. Plus, his customers had other ideas. 

“(Selling got) me to step up my game,” he said. “I was putting more and more detail into my work.” 

As his pieces became more complex, he began doing more three-dimensional work, turning some into full-fledged sculptures.

In one, a largemouth bass pursues a lure through a forest of lily pads. Another bass sculpture incorporates a wooden branch for a fluid underwater vignette. 

Though he creates both freshwater and saltwater fish, he leans toward local species in response to demand.

“The fish with the most color are the ones that are the most fun for me, and most of those are coastal,” he said. “But I like to bass fish, and that’s what sells best around here.”

His methods, too, have evolved. He started out using an acetylene torch for cutting sheets of metal into aquatic forms. For efficiency’s sake, he now uses a plasma cutter, which puts forth a smaller, hotter, and more controllable jet of flame. He even built a new, roomier workshop to pursue his hobby-turned-career in comfort and style.

Carpenter lives near Burnet with his wife, Fiona, who is also an artist. She, too, turns trash into treasure by applying lines of scripture, phrases, or words onto what she calls “found objects.” The two even collaborate when one of Trey’s pieces requires lettering — a coming together that informs their art and their connection to the Highland Lakes. 

alex@thepicayune.com

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