No whales or sharks in the Great Lakes, but Empire has a dinosaur


Curtis Warnes and sculptor Enoch Flaugher flash their smiles next to Gilbert the T-Rex on M-72. Photo by Ross Boissoneau

By Ross Boissoneau

Sun contributor

He’s a showstopper, that’s for sure. Any number of people driving past Gilbert on M-72 are stopping to get a photo with him. Because who doesn’t love a copper-colored, life-size T-Rex?

Gilbert is the brainchild of Curtis Warnes, and was crafted by sculptor Enoch Flaugher. Warnes is the owner of Steel Appeal, a firm specializing in metal work & custom furniture. He hired his cohort Flaugher to build the dinosaur, which now stands next to the building Warnes is using as a gallery to promote the “functional art” side of his business.

“People are lining up” to see and take photos of Gilbert, says Warnes.

“I paid Enoch to build it. Enoch does a lot of things,” says Warnes. He makes it clear that though the idea was originally his and he paid for the sculpture, credit should go to Flaugher. “It was his hands, his sweat, tears, blood,” says Warnes.

Blood? Really? “Unfortunately, yes,” says Flaugher, though he doesn’t go into detail. But raw steel is pretty unforgiving.

It also tends to quickly rust. That’s what led to the decision early on to paint Gilbert. “It was rusting while it was in here (the studio),” explains Warnes.

The two discussed what color would be best, and eventually opted for copper. They considered silver, but agreed they didn’t want to mimic the original steel. “We said if (we’re painting), then embrace the fact we’re painting it,” says Flaugher.

Warnes says they also had to make sure they could get enough of whatever color they chose, and that it was something readily available rather than a custom color they’d be hard-pressed to duplicate if they ever needed to. Hence the copper. And they’re both pleased with it. “It brings out more definition,” says Warnes.

“He gave me full creative freedom,” Flaugher says. And how does the finished product compare to what he originally envisioned? “It’s really close. Thanks to Curtis for allowing me to go as far as I did on the detail.

“Curtis has a brilliant mind and lots of experience,” he continues. “He has more experience in fabrication.” While some of the work was done in CAD, Flaugher says he was making much of it up as he went. “I always saw myself going into engineering. I’m mechanically minded. But I find creative work more satisfying.”

Gilbert is actually the second T-Rex the two have collaborated on. “A client of mine wanted a T-Rex, and I thought a six-foot (tall) balsa one would be cute,” Warnes says. Then the client had Warnes measure the height of his ceiling. The 14-foot-high ceilings were put to good use, and the first T-Rex – like Gilbert, made of steel, not balsa – now adorns a private home in northern Michigan.

Which led to version two, which is also 14-feet tall, and like its predecessor is 36-feet long. It is on the south side of M-72 just a few miles east of Empire. And even though they’d collaborated on his predecessor, Gilbert took three years to build – three times as long as they’d originally envisioned.

Warnes says his business has grown since he purchased it in 2005. From traditional metalwork such as gates, signage and railings, it includes metal wall plate covers, towel bars, coat racks, wall art and more. His butterfly chairs in brilliant colors have become well known, and he incorporates live edge wood slabs, rocks, resins, metal and other materials into a variety of furnishings and artworks.

But he wasn’t satisfied. “It (his company) has been Steel Appeal since it opened,” he said. After purchasing the company in 2005, he continued with the name, but he wants to showcase more art. “I’ve accepted I’m an artist, and I’m rebranding to Curtis Warnes Functional Art.”

He decided there was no way better to demonstrate that transition and call attention to the new gallery, as well provide art the entire community and those simply driving by could enjoy, than by the installation of a ferocious dinosaur. But what to call it? “Nothing bears my name, and we (the family) have history here,” he says.

Indeed, the Warnes family has a rich history in the area. “I realize the value of my family in the history of Leelanau,” he says. Curtis’s father Greg, who worked for many years for Glen Lake Community Schools, and his mom Deb ran Warnes Grocery in Glen Arbor for years, following in the footsteps of Curtis’s grandfather Gil and wife Elsie, who owned it for 46 years. They also ran the dune climb concession for 30 years. Curtis’s great uncle, Gil’s brother Louis, started the dune buggy rides business that operated from their store in Glen Haven.

Greg used his middle name to distinguish between himself and his father, Gilbert P. “Gil” Warnes. “That’s when it hit me, it had to be Gilbert.” In doing family research, Warnes discovered that not only was Gilbert his father’s and grandfather’s name, but also his great-grandfather’s.

Now Gilbert will watch as the traffic passes by to and from Empire and Glen Arbor. “There’s an emotional aspect,” admits Warnes. “I have five kids and their names are on the plaque. It’s super, super cool.”

Warnes and Flaugher plan to continue to work together while also building their own separate brands. “The environment here is super fulfilling. Curtis brings in so many jobs, sometimes both of us have to learn,” Flaugher says.

“I was getting stagnant. I was 15 years into the business, and needed something extraordinary,” Warnes says.

And if a fearsome tyrannosaurus rex alongside a road isn’t extraordinary, what is?