It's 116 degrees under the desert sun, so hot even the Borrego Springs horned toads are hunting shade.
But there's no shade for metal sculptor Ricardo Breceda who's welding sheet-metal scales onto a 350-foot sea monster.
White-hot sparks pop and blister from molten metal. So much sweat rolls into his eyes, he can hardly see through the welding helmet's visor. The sun is hot, the metal is hot, the arc welder is hot, the helmet is hot, his clothes are hot.
It's July, he's been sweltering for almost three months on this sea monster. "All I can think is -- let's finish this thing," he says.
Lost in the fever of work, his working delirium is broken by a young man who is yelling at him to stop, and holding out a bottle of water.
"He actually got in my face, and yelled at me to stop. I didn't want to stop, I wanted to keep going. But I'm glad I stopped. That guy may have saved my life."
Breceda knocked off, drank lots of water, and regained himself after a few hours cooling off to continue.
A couple of days later, he finally finished. "Let me tell you, a beer never tasted so good."
Breceda, 52, of Temecula, is a legend in Borrego Springs for his sea monster and other creatures. It's part of the Sky Art installation, a now world-famous collection of his artwork in situ at Galleta Meadows. Dennis Avery, land owner of Galleta Meadows Estates in Borrego Springs, had the vision of using his land as an enormous outdoor gallery. Some 130 Breceda pieces, including his tour de force sea monster, are installed on the grounds.
He's a brujo, a sorcerer, a magician who vivifies sheet metal.
Folks driving east on Highway 79 near Temecula, ooh-and-ahh at bigger-than-life rams with full curls on a hilltop. A little further down the road, a stallion rears skyward, front hooves striking out an imaginary foe. A little further, a team of horses pulls a stagecoach at full gallop, the driver slapping reins, the man riding shotgun wielding a short-barreled scatter gun.
There is usually a horse that appears to be jumping over the highway, but recent winds knocked it down, ripping out the stakes it was anchored with.
People are awestruck by the beauty and scale of his work, and the way his animals seem so real, the way he fashions sheet metal into muscle and bone, the way he captures motion.
"I love it (the work) and I hate it. Most of the time I'm having fun, then what I do isn't work. But I can't wait to finish a piece to see how it comes out. What is good, what is a mistake. What I can change? What can I do next time to make it better? It's interesting," he says.
"At first I was clumsy, my efforts very boxy," he says. But after about 14 years of creating realistic, prehistoric, and fantasy sculptures, his skills have accelerated.
He resides at Vail Lake Resort, where in a cavernous metal barn and on the surrounding grounds he displays his metal art. The resort owner encouraged Breceda to come to the resort from his previous I-215 location in Perris. The sculptures visible on the hills are on resort property and function as both public art and advertisement. I don't advertise much, but it's my way to advertise."
Breceda lives by the old adage, "Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise."
His barn is open to the public, people free to wander through his sculptures to take a closer look.
On this day, Bill and Ellen Engstrom of Borrego Springs wander Breceda's compound to look over new art and to say hello.
"Oh look, honey, here's a new piece," says Ellen to her husband, pointing to a Breceda take on James Earle Fraser's famous "End of the Trail." Breceda trots into his office and comes out with a blue ribbon.
"This piece took first place in the Indian Wells Arts Festival," he says with a hint of pride.
"I can see why it won," says Bill. "It's great."
Breceda believes in motion. He's almost always in motion. One of those fast-metabolism guys who need to be moving. He's been that way his whole life. His family owned a 250-acre ranch in Durango, Mexico. He grew up riding horses, corralling cattle, scolding the dog for chasing chickens.
He didn't learn anatomy in art classes, or from text books. He learned as a kid how to read musculature watching horses gallop in the pasture, watching how cattle acted when their eyes turned white with fear, watching birds of prey soar then cartwheel overhead.
"When I see one side of a horse, I know what's on the other side," he says.
Breceda's life has been one of taking chances. He had his wild side as a kid, an arrest as a teen for a fight, an arrest for running naked through town after losing a game of strip basketball. Mostly hijinks of the young.
From a young age he learned the meaning of work. When he was eight, to keep out of trouble, he sold ice cream from a cart in the town square, he shined shoes, he sold pumpkin seeds his mother roasted for him. He worked on the ranch helping in the family business of raising pigs for market. He liked to roam the hills with his German Shepherd and his .22 rifle to shoot rabbits his mother would cook.
He went to college, earned a teaching credential, and taught elementary school in Mexico. He worked construction until he broke his back. He sold cowboy boots at race courses where he also liked to bet on the horses.
"I knew the horses and the riders so I could make easy money at the races," he says, a hint mischief glinting from his eyes.
He was a man who liked tools, and one day he traded a pair of custom boots for a welding machine and started fooling with it. Nothing serious, just teaching himself how to use it.
He's a single father of two daughters, Lianna, 19, and Araby, 4. When his daughter, Lianna turned 6, he took her to see "Jurassic Park" for her birthday. He asked her what she'd like for a birthday present. She wanted a T-rex -- full-size.
"Oh man...But she was of the age when she thought her father could do anything. And I've always thought, if it could be done with my hands, I could do it," he said.
Breceda believes in the can-do attitude. He refuses to set himself limits. He set to work. Although he had no specific training, he tackled the job confident he could do it. Helped by his long time friend Porfilio Sandoval Sanchez, they hammered out pieces and welded them together to form a Tyrannosaurus Rex 25 feet high and 45 feet long, all ferocity and angry teeth. He set it out in front of his place on the I-215 near Perris, and the rest is history.
People lined up to see what he had done. "I became kind of a celebrity overnight," he says. Now there's even a book on him "Ricardo Breceda: Accidental Artist" by Diana Lindsay.
He has a studio in Mexico and does much of his work down there. Most of his projects are so big, they require help. Breceda, has several people working for him, and the work is intense, he says.
"We've worked round the clock on some projects. There's just something inside me that wants to get a piece finished," he says
"I work hard to get a piece to look alive, to give it a soul. I see that in a finished piece, and that makes me feel good," he says.
To see more of Ricardo Breceda's work, visit his website.
Top Image: Sculptures by Ricardo Breceda. | Photo: Gordon Johnson
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