Anne Alexander Dances the TorchDec 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Lilace Mellin Guignard
One night, long after Racks Brew House had turned off the lights, a couple doors away in the garage-turned-workshop of the new community center, the Elkland Hub, music blared from behind the door that says Higher Ground Welding and Art. It was 2:30 a.m. when Anne Alexander turned around to see a fully uniformed local officer. “He was about to go off the clock and saw my car, so he came to see if he could walk me to my vehicle.” This kind and less-than-subtle hint that she was working too late sank in, and Anne turned her torch off and headed home to her husband, Dwayne, and daughters Ila, eight, and Anabel, five.
“I’m a third shifter,” she explains. Many mothers, even ones who don’t wield a torch and grinder, understand the necessity of using the time after everyone’s asleep to get projects done. And Anne has more than a few projects. This will be her first time as a vendor at Wellsboro’s Dickens of a Christmas on December 2, and she must build—literally—her inventory. Her signature item is a steel rose that blooms all winter long.
Anne grew up in Nelson and moved to Williamsport at age fourteen. After high school, she worked at Red Lobster counting shrimp, and there, twenty-one years ago, she met Dwayne. “He’s been with me through it all,” she says. “He’s an accountant—my accountant, thank goodness.” Anne graduated from Pennsylvania College of Technology in 2003 with an associate’s degree in welding technology, and for three years she made boilers for a company in Williamsport. After it moved overseas, she qualified for Trade Readjustment Assistance, which allowed her to study biology at Kutztown University, receiving her BS in 2010.
For a while she pinballed between fabrication and bio jobs, including agriculture research collecting data on crops and being a welding instructor at BOCES in upstate New York. In 2015, she finally got her own workshop and struck her first arc in the barn her mother, Rosemarie Lugg, had in Nelson. The name, Higher Ground, is a nod to when the town of Nelson was flooded and subsequently relocated. While lady welders don’t run in Anne’s family, the women are known for breaking new ground. Her grandmother, Ila Wiley, after whom Anne’s oldest daughter is named, was Tioga County’s first female county commissioner.
Anne shut down her workshop in 2018, when she lost use of the barn and had Anabel. She always intended to reopen—but where? In early 2022, Dwayne bought a building in downtown Elkland with the intention of creating a community center, and immediately leased the two-bay garage to his wife. That March, sparks started flying on Main Street.
Her business has three components: welding instruction, fabrication and repair, and commissioned artwork. Anne equally enjoys the precise engineering demands of fabrication jobs and the creative freedom of her artwork. The instruction she offers runs from date nights to homeschool workshops to teaching employees of the global essential oils company doTERRA how to weld stainless steel—this after traveling to Kane several times to repair their birch oil stills.
Anyone can call to arrange a custom experience. Anne will teach to any level, and she describes her workshop as an inclusive space. One woman drove from Mill Hall. She’d never been exposed to tools, had never been in a workshop, but after four hours she had a working knowledge of welding. Anne enjoys the personal empowerment aspect, saying, “She was a mechanically inclined individual who’d never been exposed to anything like this.” Kids, she says, often have not developed the fear of sparks many adults have. She’s taught welding to four-year-olds.
Even though she’s exhibited in juried shows, it’s a surprise to her that her artwork, functional as some of it is, has become the focus. Joe Perry Winery in Troy commissioned her to make an indoor railing with grape vines because the ones they could buy were flat, and they wanted three dimensional. They also wanted parts to be removable so they could easily move furniture. She often works with the garage doors open so passersby can see. “I get a lot of foot traffic,” she says.
The year’s success gave Anne the confidence to apply for Dickens, but she didn’t yet have an easy-to-replicate item, which is a requirement. She’d made her first rose for her mom in August, and realized she’d found what she was looking for. No roses are exactly alike. Each petal and leaf are traced, rough cut, fine cut, center punched, veins chiseled, drilled, and snipped. Roses are sepia, blue-black, and multi-colored. “When heat goes onto steel,” she explains, “it changes in a predictable spectrum—light straw to gold to brown to purple to blue.” Controlling the heat on the thin petals is more difficult. “I have to dance the torch,” she says.
Then the Wellsboro Area Chamber of Commerce, who accepted her application on the spot, told her she’d set up on the corner of Waln and Main Streets, where Bucky Green, the last original Dickens vendor, and his iconic Christmas trees, had always been (see O Bucky Tree, O Bucky Tree). Anne was shocked and a little intimidated, but the Chamber assured her he’d be happy a local artist got the spot. Her friends are helping, and she’s getting lots of advice about how to keep warm (hand warmers down the back of pants works). Someone suggested stamping and dating each piece because many customers become collectors.
In addition to steel roses, Anne’s offerings will include copper trout tree ornaments, fish sculptures, duck and cattail wine holders, hand carved lino-print holiday cards, and her special Lady Welder coffee blend, locally roasted in Forksville by High Mountain Coffee Company. You can also catch Anne’s creations, and those of other local artisans, at the Elkland Hub during her Makers’ Meet, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday, December 17. The Elkland Hub and Higher Ground Welding and Art are located at 210 W. Main Street. Call Anne at (570) 279-7074 or, better yet, message her via the Higher Ground Facebook page.