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Don Lindgren zipped his hand back and forth in short, quick strokes, his plasma cutter hissing, screaming and throwing sparks as superheated gas sliced through steel.
After about a minute, he held up the hot, palm-sized piece of jagged metal and started bending it. At first blush, it looked to be nothing more than a scrap from the shop floor, but then Lindgren explained his plan to put together 15,000 of the pieces for a 10-foot grizzly bear sculpture. He was making the first hairs of the animal’s coat.
Lindgren, 71, is the semi-retired founder and owner of Quality Paint and Auto Body at 34th Street & Lyndale Avenue, a business he claims has repaired 30,000 cars since it opened in 1960. But the Minnetonka, Minn., man is an artist at heart and he spends the bulk of his free time exploring creative passions beyond bending fenders.
“I’ve been interested in art since I was in the 2nd grade,” Lindgren said. “I love colors and I love crooked lines.”
Lindgren said he’s always been good with his hands. He was the guy making stage props in high school while other students were learning English, he said.
He’s dabbled in many different art forms including painting, photography and making stained-glass windows, but metal is by far his favorite medium. It’s forgiving; mistakes can be cut off, grinded or replaced with a new weld, he said.
Metal molding is actually what drew him to auto body work.
“If you bend up your fender and I get to bring it back to life and paint it and polish it and make it look pretty, then that’s almost like painting a picture. It’s definitely sculpture,” he said.
Lindgren spends Monday through Friday in his Lyndale Avenue shop, fixing cars and sculpting when he can. Saturdays are his play day, he said, so he spends those in the little workspace, too, surrounded by tools, scrap metal and heaps of junk. It’s the perfect playground.
“I’m not interested in throwing anything out,” he said with a dry laugh after pointing out a steel eagle cutout that “didn’t make it.”
The grizzly bear is Lindgren’s latest project, but he’s already gained plenty of experience and a little local fame manipulating metal into life-size animals. His first and most re-created is a full-scale moose.
It took him several years to make the first one about a decade ago and he spent a couple months after its completion driving the sculpture around in the bed of his truck, just for the thrill of seeing onlookers’ reactions. The moose also spent some time in front of the shop before moving up north to Lindgren’s cabin on Gull Lake in Brainerd, Minn.
The huge steel creature, left unpainted so it would turn rusty brown, became surprisingly popular.
“I would have never thought anybody really cared about a moose,” said Lindgren’s wife Gail, 69, who does administrative work at the body shop. “I couldn’t believe it when he put it outside because we needed space and people just started stopping and asking about it. I think the appreciation people have for it is amazing.”
In response to all the intrigue, Lindgren made patterns for the moose and started selling them for between $2,500 and $3,000. These days, he can crank out a moose in a couple weeks. He’s sold 10 so far.
One is cemented in a Whittier yard.
“I just thought whoever did that doesn’t know what a moose looks like because they’re really ugly and that was sort of cute,” said one of the owners of the Whittier moose, who asked that her name and address not be used. “Then it sort of grew on me, so I started to ask (my husband) when he was going to get me a moose statue, and he did.”
She said the sculpture has become a reference point and a neighborhood icon. She’s had people ask to take photos by it and even caught a couple getting intimate on the moose early one morning.
“I think it’s been kind of cool because it turned into public art,” she said. “It’s well known in the community.”
Gail, who’s been married to Lindgren for 50 years, said she supports her husband’s creative spirit. But it hasn’t always been easy.
“It’s sometimes been a little confusing with the body shop and his artwork, and we’ve been at odds space-wise,” she said. “He’s got so many different things that he can do, we’ve often said he needs a studio. We kind of have encouraged him to find something, but he likes it here.”
Lindgren and Gail work alongside son David, 42. Daughter Deb Johnson, 42, also spent many years helping at the shop, a true family business from the start.
Johnson said her dad has always put people first and getting to know customers has always been a priority for him. He also has fun doing it.
“He is hysterical,” she said. “He has got the most incredible sense of humor and he is always pulling pranks on customers and employees. Customers love him.”
Pranks range from whoopee cushions to depantsing an employee of neighboring restaurant El Meson. Lindgren built the attached restaurant himself in the 1970s and ran it as a pizza and pasta joint called the U.S. Pasta Office.
It did well and even received some national TV coverage, but after a decade it proved too difficult to operate simultaneously with the body shop, Lindgren said.
The restaurant is one example of the speed at which Lindgren comes up with an idea and acts on it. His mind moves as fast as his plasma cutter.
“Don has got an idea a minute,” said longtime friend and customer Paul Stafford, 66.
Lindgren recently grafted a BMW front end on Stafford’s Chevrolet hearse.
The ideas are always coming, Lindgren said. Sometimes they appear in his dreams.
Aside from the moose, he’s made a detailed life-size eagle, an elk, an Easter cross that has been displayed at multiple churches, and countless other sculptures.
“My mind just doesn’t quit,” he said.
When asked if he ever planned to fully retire, Lindgren looked over a freshly cut piece of bear’s fur and simply said, “No, it’s too much fun.”
Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or [email protected]