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Dynamo With a Blowtorch

Metal artist Rochelle Ford repurposes a later-in-life career


Wearing a welder’s mask, clad in fireproof outerwear and sporting gloves the size of catcher’s mitts, the metal artist was quite a sight. It was only when Rochelle Ford began to peel off her protective gear that I realized this well-padded person is quite a petite woman, just over five feet tall. She’s found that her “work” outfit gets people to take her more seriously. But she shed her disguise to sit down for her interview. You’d never guess that this woman was 80+ years old and didn’t begin her career until the age of retirement for most people.

I first met Ford when I interviewed her for my book, The Vintage Years: Finding Your Inner Artist (Writer, Musician, Visual Artist) After 60. But I wanted to get another peek at her gorgeous artwork, so I took advantage of an annual weekend-long citywide artists’ event to visit her again. It also gave me the chance to enjoy the good weather, get some exercise walking and see several local artists’ works, including hers.

At 83, Ford, who lives in Palo Alto, Calif., is amazingly fit, maybe from lugging junk and other found objects such as car- and sewing machine parts to her studio for their makeover into art objects. Combine that with the steadiness needed to hold and painstakingly manage a blowtorch, and you have a combination that more than exceeds the recommended daily fitness challenge for older adults.

Ford is a metal artist who didn’t embark on her trade until later in life. In fact, she spent her working years in traditional ways — managing a household, raising children, supervising and later owning small businesses. But her creativity found expression when it pushed its way out in a big and dramatic fashion.

Time to Follow Her Passion

When you watch this dynamo wielding an acetylene torch to create art from bed springs repurposed, reshaped and reimagined, you forget her diminutive stature. She’s a self-taught sculptor who’s been at her trade since she was 58, deciding to follow her passion and ditch a more conventional lifestyle.

Ford took a leap by recalling the words of a former boss: “It’s never too soon and it’s never too late.”

Ford said, “Whenever someone decides to do something, it’s the right time, and I tried to remember that. I bought my welding equipment, and taught myself to weld. I remembered thinking, ‘I don’t have time.’”

For almost six decades, she has been married to former NFL football player, Henry Ford. There were years when his career determined moves and career options for Rochelle. But these days, he assists her in the business that burst out of a hobby. I met him at the artists’ event helping out with the money end of art purchases in her studio.

I hadn’t realized that some of Ford’s creations were for sale that day, which explains why parking was scarce. Not surprisingly, the other lookers were a combination of art seekers, artfully dressed browsers and folks from the neighborhood who had parts of objects they wished to contribute to the sculptor’s junk-to-art collection.

For example, she mentioned that the former owner of a local fabric store, closed for at least 20 years, had come by with some sewing machine parts he thought she could use. Ford never turns down a good piece of metal scrap. Can you imagine her picking her way through burned and broken parts in a salvage yard? It’s one of her favorite pastimes.

Re-Creating Herself

For this event, Ford was dressed exotically in a lavender silk ensemble, with sleeves that appeared to be tie-dyed. Consistent with this amazingly colorful woman, the outfit was tinted by her own hands. But what struck me most was the metal necklace, really a crescent-moon of a sculpture intricately welded and matching her clothing almost perfectly. I so admired that body art that I went indoors to her front room where she was exhibiting metal jewelry, also for sale, hoping to find a similar adornment.

I’m not someone who wears much jewelry. In fact, I’m a stripped-down version of a woman most at home in a pair of jeans or sweats. I’ve always preferred the super casual and comfortable, especially since retirement. I don’t require jewelry, but fell in love with the art in Ford’s neckpieces.

Of course, I wanted the one she was wearing, but I never asked and she didn’t offer it for sale. Instead I found another, less colorful (like me) but elegant and a reminder of my delight in Ford’s journey. Only recently did I learn that former President Obama saw a famous woman senator wearing a Rochelle Ford neck creation and was so struck by it that he bought a piece as a birthday present for First Lady Michelle Obama.

I asked Ford how she gets inspired. “Sometimes I can do exactly what I envision and other times the metal just won’t cooperate … it’s too strong,” she said. “Then I say ‘OK, you have to try something different.’”

But let’s not forget the takeaway message in all of this. It’s not about the art, or even the artist. It’s about self-discovery. If ever in life there were rules and roles to live by, it’s not in our post midlife years. This is a time for re-creating ourselves in any image we choose. If not now, then when? What’s in store for your future?

By Francine Toder
Francine Toder, Ph.D. is an emeritus faculty member of California State University, Sacramento and is a clinical psychologist retired from private practice. She is also the author of The Vintage Years: Finding your Inner Artist (Writer, Musician, Visual Artist) After Sixty. Her new book coming out this fall is Inward Traveler: 51 Ways to Explore the World Mindfully.  Her extensive writing on diverse topics appears in magazines, professional journals, newspapers, blog sites and as edited book chapters. She resides in the San Francisco Bay area.  

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