She quit her day job, hit the junk yard, created something fun|[06/01/08]

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 30, 2008

To turn a piece of rusted scrap metal into a work of art, it takes a vivid imagination, the ability to weld, a sense of humor and Poor Julia.

Poor Julia – she’s known to some as Julia Walter Allen or Mrs. Lane Allen – turned from a career in nursing to frequenting junk yards “because I was bored, mostly.” Her husband traveled a lot, her two sons were often gone, and though she loved nursing, “I just got tired of doing the same thing every day.” She liked the outdoors, and one day she was “playing with stuff in the backyard, trying to make some metal things out of pots and pans, and I didn’t know how to attach them. I was riveting things together, which took too much time. This was no fun.”

Welding, she decided, was the answer, “Though I didn’t know what welding was.” She enrolled in a night class at Hinds which was a perfect setup – she could continue her nursing while learning. At first, she said, she was scared to death. Students had to bring their own metal, so Julia “went to the scrap yard, and it was the most wonderful thing. I saw so much. Oh, I just fell in love with iron and rust and after that I wasn’t scared anymore. I’d go to the scrap yard on Thursdays, load up my stuff, go to class on Mondays and make things out of it.”

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Why the name Poor Julia? It originated when she was growing up in the Belhaven area of Jackson, along with her sisters, and while they washed and dried the supper dishes she would have to study. Her sisters would say, sarcastically, “Poor Julia has to study.” They knew she was back there smoking (which the parents didn’t know), and Julia now laughs, “They (her sisters) were so mad at me.”

Scrap metal garden art by Julia Allen is displayed at her Jackson studio.

After having gone to Baylor and Emory to study nursing, a profession she pursued “forever and ever,” she decided to try a career in art. “I thought Poor Julia was an appropriate name as I look awful in the scrap yard. I hang out. I mean, I’ve had service stations not let me come in the door after being in the scrap yard and being filthy dirty. So, there’s no money in this. It’s just fun.”

When the time came for her change in occupational directions, Poor Julia said, “Though I don’t do horoscopes,” she read hers one morning, “and it said for me to leave my job and weld. That’s basically what it said, and it said to do it today.” So she turned in her resignation, then went home and told her husband.

“You WHAT!?” he asked.

She said, “It’s time. I can’t do both. I can’t weld and be a nurse.”

What does she look for in the piles of scrap metal? She doesn’t usually have a preconceived notion. She likes color, “and obviously I need legs and heads, so I pick up rings and things” and start seeing things in it, though “a lot of things don’t become what I plan. They evolve into something else. I like imperfections. My husband, the engineer, will say, ‘That isn’t straight,’ and I say, ‘I don’t do straight things. That makes it look like its not made by a factory.'”

Poor Julia frequents scrap metal yards when their liability fears don’t keep her out, and on trips she takes her truck and looks for scrap. When she comes home, there is often a pile of rusted metal left at her door.

When she finishes her morning’s work, she may have turned coil springs into the body of a yard dog or a porch cat. A dip stick with wings attached may be a dragonfly, and a variety of sizes and shapes and pieces become equally as many diverse objects, from life-size figures to art for the library table. The first piece she made, quite a few years ago, was three sisters out of railroad spikes. She says she thought some of her early efforts were wonderful, but now looks at

them and goes, “Ugh!”

Who buys her art?

If you goTo get to Poor Julia’s from Vicksburg, take Northside Drive out of Clinton to Jackson. Turn right on College Hill Street, travel one block, then take a right onto Womack. Her studio is on the left. A sign advises “Open Daily Unless Closed,” so call 601-923-0922 before you go.”Well, if I could figure that out I wouldn’t be ‘Poor Julia’ anymore,” she said. “Regular people don’t buy. I love to watch people when they walk up. Some just laugh and smile. I’ve seen children just fall down laughing over a piece. They love it. Then there are those who stand back, shake their heads, don’t say a word. If they don’t smile, I don’t want them buying anything. Some guy came in here four times looking at a piece, and he never smiled. I told Lane if he buys it tell him he can’t have it, because I want it to be in a happy place.”

She seldom does out-of-town shows because the problem of moving such heavy items “is awful, especially if Lane is out playing golf – and, on top of that, he went to the doctor who told him he had a hernia, didn’t need an operation, just didn’t need to lift anything heavy.”

She told him, “You go call the doctor right now and make an appointment because you’re going to be lifting everything.”

She met Lane, also from Jackson, when she was in grade school. After retiring from a career with BellSouth, “he now takes care of me and plays golf a lot. He’s a good man, good to put up with me. He never dreamed I would turn into a wild woman.”

Metal art is something you can study in schools, though Poor Julia didn’t “because I’m too old to learn. I don’t have that much time left. I’ve got to just make it. I started too late.” She admits that she could learn a lot of safety things and laughed that a highlight of her career was the day she didn’t burn herself.

“There are people who say ‘You shouldn’t be doing this. It gives you brain damage,'” she said. But, “I feel like I’m all right. I already have brain damage. Perhaps people just haven’t noticed.”

Poor Julia has a gallery and a shop on Womack Street in west Jackson. In Vicksburg, you can see some of her works at the Attic Gallery on Washington Street, and, in Jackson, at Fondren Place.

As for making metal art, Poor Julia said, “I’ve never gotten tired of it. I didn’t think I would. I love every minute of it. There’s so much excitement. I’ve met some of the weirdest and the most wonderful people in the world – people I would never have met in what I call my normal life. I used to be normal. Now I’m a crazy old woman, and I love it!”

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Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.