Search Amazon for books on welding, and Todd Bridigum’s “How to Weld”, published by MotorBooks International (MBI), comes up first. “When I was actually working as a welder, I wondered, ‘Why did I get a liberal arts degree?’ It was fun to come full circle,” Bridigum said.
Although he was officially an English major at Hamline University, Bridigum fell in love with intaglio printmaking and metal sculpture while he was still in college. He worked at a coffee shop for a year after graduation while considering his options: Go to graduate school and prepare for a career teaching art, which would probably take him out of Minnesota; or learn a trade and continue his artwork as a hobby. He chose the second option and enrolled in the welding program at St. Paul College, graduating in 1998.
He worked in a manufacturing company as a welder, making medical equipment, ovens and staging equipment as well as doing some repair work. He also used his welding and metal fabrication knowledge to design his own printmaking press, which he still uses.
When Minneapolis Community and Technical College decided to restart a welding program, Bridigum was one of the candidates interviewed to develop the curriculum and lead the program. “They said I was not the most experienced, but I had the most potential,” he said. The curriculum was approved in 2005 and the program was up and running in the fall of 2006.
When he accepted the offer to write a welding book, he said, “I looked for what was missing in other books. The exercises and sequential photos in the book — that was new.” The book is now used around the world. There’s also a Japanese edition. “It’s really rewarding,” Bridigum said.
Throughout his welding and teaching career, Bridigum kept up with his art. “Building the press was key. After that, I was able to do printmaking again,” he said. He placed first in printmaking at the Minnesota State Fair twice, and he took third place in 2012. “It’s the doing that’s important. I sell occasionally, but I don’t make an effort to market my work,” he said.
Bridigum plans to “continue my artistic journey,” he said. In fact, he hasn’t ruled out graduate school, which would open up more teaching options. He team-teaches a sculpture class at MCTC with someone from the art department.
“People need to know about the trades,” he concluded. “If you have a liberal-arts background, there are places to take it. You could call this article, ‘He’s an artist, but he isn’t starving.’”
Is there still a demand for welders?
The demand is still there. Welding is integral to our standard of living. It’s part of food production, electrical production, water treatment.
What does it take to be a successful welder?
You need some kind of knowledge of math. You need to be good at special relationships. You need attention to detail. As a welder, you have to pay attention to a lot of things at once: “DASH” — distance, angle, speed, heat. You have to recognize when something changes and adapt. You need manual dexterity. Sewing is a great crossover. I liked to sew as a kid. I built a lot of models. Piano would be the same way, I would imagine.
Does your manufacturing experience make you a better artist?
Sculpture is construction. Experience with building things helps. Technique matters — you can let it go and focus on what you want to say. □