How one man’s roadside artwork blossomed into a thriving family business.
Photographs courtesy of Joe Foley
Every day on his way to work in the coal mines, William “Joe” Foley drove past a large display of metal flowers near his Charleston home.
“I rubbernecked them every day for years,” recalls Foley, a welder by trade. “Well, one was stolen, and my mother-in-law read an article that said the cost to replace it was going to be $10,000. She said the whole display was $30,000. And I said, ‘I’m in the wrong business.’”
Two weeks later, Foley was out in his garage, pounding and welding a giant steel flower for his wife, Dawn. He made several for her and a few more for friends.
“One day, I pulled them all out of the ground, put them in the back of my pickup truck, and set up on the corner by Buffalo Wild Wings,” he says. “I sold the first flower in 15 minutes for $150. I thought, ‘Well, this is pretty good.’”
There on the side of the road, Foley’s new business blossomed. Now, 18 years later, Steel Blooming LLC is a family affair. Dawn Foley does all the painting and decorating, and the couple’s son Jose Foley, 19, helps with the rest: designing, shaping, and welding, as well as handling the business’s social media. Larger-than-life metal flowers remain Steel Blooming’s most popular pieces, but the Foley family also creates metal lizards, bees, butterflies, and other creatures as well as fairy houses, flag holders, wall hangings, and seasonal metal decor. Visitors to their shop in Charleston say it’s like “walking into wonderland,” Foley says.
“All my patterns start off hand-drawn on a piece of paper,” he says. “They’re 100 percent original. And everything’s hand-shaped, so no two pieces are exactly alike. The lizards and other creatures are truly art pieces. My wife spends so much time decorating them.”
In the early days of selling roadside and traveling to craft fairs, Foley sold his flowers unpainted, “or sometimes I’d paint them there on the side of the road and sell them for $5 more,” he laughs—and each one was sold as a fully welded piece. Now, the flower heads are interchangeable, allowing customers to design their own pieces and rotate the blooms seasonally. Dawn, who has a degree in fine arts, paints and decorates using a rattle can, brushes, Q-Tips, and toothpicks. Unpainted pieces are available for customers who want to paint their own or prefer the natural rust that appears over time.
“Back when I was doing the painting, it was all very mechanical,” Foley remembers. “Eventually, Dawn taught me how to blend and fade a little bit, so that helped. But when she finally decided she was going to paint, it just blew me away. She’s amazing. Now I don’t paint anything—and she slaps my hand away if I try.”
The pieces, which range from $25 to $250, draw inspiration from a variety of places.
“My son was doodling in school when they were working on the greater-than and less-than signs, and he turned those signs into a little lizard creature,” Foley says. “As soon as my wife saw it she asked, ‘Can we make that?’”
The Foleys sell their pieces at Tamarack, at fairs and festivals, and at the Steel Blooming workshop. They are unable to ship, but they do sell wholesale to shops in neighboring states. Their work can be spotted throughout the region, adding a dose of cheer to homes and gardens for folks of all ages.
Things are coming up roses for the thriving family business. While it’s certainly an upgrade from the back of a pickup truck, Foley says one thing hasn’t changed: the people.
“The best part for me is just seeing people smile and get a kick out of what we’re doing,” he says. “We sell to the same people month after month, year after year. I love every part of it. Now that my son’s getting involved, it’s really starting to get fun.”
1622 Oakhurst Drive, Charleston, 304.542.6999, @steelbloomingllc on Facebook
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