October 2013
Homeplace & Community

A Heart for Art and Jerseys

  Neal Halsey and his family own and operate a dairy farm in rural Pike County. They opened their Pike County dairy with Holsteins in 2000, but have transitioned to Jerseys.

Pike Co. Dairyman Loves Both

Those who live south of the Mason-Dixon Line regard anyone who lives north of "the line" a Yankee.

So, when the Halsey family crossed the line and moved into Pike County under the cover of darkness with four "transfer" truckloads of "immigrants," a lot of eyebrows were raised and curiosity was aroused.

Actually, the Halsey family was from Michigan - the Midwest, not Yankee land. The trucks were loaded with 120 Holsteins that were "employed" by Son-NE Dairy and the bovines had come to work in the sunny South.

The Pike County Cattlemen’s Association commissioned Halsey to do the artwork for the sign at Cattleman’s Park on U.S. Highway 231 south of Troy.  

The year was 2000. Neal Halsey and his family decided to make the move from the hinterlands of Michigan where winters are too often bitter cold to a place where the air is warm and the grass grows green more often than not.

The Halseys milked the Holsteins in Michigan that night, loaded them onto the trucks for the drive south and milked them in Pike County the next morning.

That’s how Son-NE Dairy came to the Sun-E South.

Clockwise from top left, The praying cowboy is one of Neal Halsey’s most requested metal works. Circular saws become works of art in Neal Halsey’s hands. Neal Halsey’s favorite metal art piece is of his border collie Jed who stood nose to nose with a battling bull and won.  

"We came south because the cows can graze most of the year," Halsey said. "We’ve switched to Jerseys because they tolerate the heat better. The move was good for us and good for business."

While Neal Halsey is known as a good dairyman, he also has a reputation as quite a good metal artist and his work can be viewed on a daily basis all around the county and beyond.

  Neal Halsey designed and created a 4x6-foot chandelier for a cattleman in Wetumpka. Each side has a different design. The metal artwork includes his signature – clouds, stars and the moon.

Halsey doesn’t think of himself as an artist but rather as a "hobbyist" who makes art.

"The way I look at things is: if it’s not fun, don’t do it," he said, with a smile.

So, the way Halsey sees it is that working cattle and making art with a plasma torch – a thin beam of electricity and air – are fun or he wouldn’t be doing either.

Not many people think getting up before sunrise to milk cows and coming back again in late afternoon to milk them again would be fun.

"If you love it, it’s fun … and I love it," Halsey said.

And not many people would have the talent to create metal art or want to accept the challenges of working in such an unforgiving medium.

"If you make a mistake with metal art, you either just go with the mistake or scrap the piece and start all over," Halsey said and added laughing that he has "gone" a lot of times.

Neal Halsey creates small pieces using horseshoes and horseshoe nails that are popular gift items for those who are involved in or appreciate the Western way of life. At right, Motion; far right, Cowboy Roping. Above, another of Halsey’s pieces.

Halsey does all of his metal work by hand, but much of the metal artwork done today is done by machines.

"Using a picture and a computer, you can get a picture perfect piece of metal art," Halsey said.

That’s okay for those who want cookie cutter art, but that’s not the fun way.

"Artwork made by machine is perfect - too perfect. The edges are as smooth as glass," Halsey said. "Mine’s not like that. You can run your finger across the edges and feel the little bumps. Those little bumps are my heartbeats."

Halsey has had a heart for art for as long as he can remember.

"As a little kid, I liked to draw all kinds of things," he said. "When I got older, I took a few art classes. And, with my family in the dairy business, I learned a lot about working with metal."

Halsey’s experience with metal combined with his artist talents was tailor made for metal art.

"What I like best is Western-type stuff," Halsey said. "That’s what I grew up with and that’s what I know and that’s what I enjoy."

For Halsey, there was a good bit of trial and error, but those first pieces – the trial and the error pieces – were, and are, treasures for his mom Marian.

"She gets the first of everything I do," Halsey said, with a smile. "Whatever I do, she likes."

And his mom is not the only one who appreciates Halsey’s talent. He specializes in custom work.

"People tell me what they want. I sketch it out and, if they like it, I go to work," he said.
Much of the artwork Halsey creates is for entrance gates for farms, cattle operations and ranches.

"I’ve done a lot of cattle and horses, cowboys and cowgirls," he said. "Of course, there are always trees and fences. And, I like to include clouds, the moon and stars. They are my signature on my artwork."

Halsey also does custom artwork on circular saws.

"I’ve done fishing and hunting scenes on saws," he said. "I do a lot of small pieces with horseshoes and horseshoe nails. Just fun pieces. People like small pieces for gifts.

He also does lamps and light fixtures and has done a 4x6-foot chandelier with different scenes on each side.

"That’s the biggest single piece I’ve done," he said. "The people were pleased with it and I had a lot of fun doing it."

Most of Halsey’s artwork is custom work so he doesn’t have a lot of his work "on hand."

But he does have one piece that money couldn’t buy because of the memory it holds.

"I had a six-month-old border collie that I was training to work cattle," Halsey said. "I got a call from a neighbor early one morning saying our bulls were out. I took Jed in the truck with me. When we got there, I didn’t know what he would do facing those huge bulls.

"Almost before I knew it, Jed had popped a bull on the nose a time or two, backed him down and put him in the pen. He did the work with me sitting in the truck. I knew right then that I had a good cattle dog."

Halsey said that’s what his art is all about – about things that are important to people – things identifying who they are and what they are all about.

And, for Halsey, his art is about what’s important to him and what’s fun.

Jaine Treadwell is a freelance writer from Brundidge.