Ralph Goodyear is standing on top of a 3-foot high welding table, ignoring the flaming sparks showering around him. The muscles in his arms tense as he supports an elaborately curved ornate banister that will one day become the railing for a staircase. Bent and pounded out of iron around a metal armature, the stair rail is agonizingly heavy and hot from the roaring acetylene torch in Goodyear's hand. The pronounced curve of the railing needs to be supported until it cures, so Goodyear sweats and hangs on while apprentice Tim Guilbeau takes a stout steel rod and actually welds it to the table to provide some stability.

Relieved of his burden, Goodyear jumps down from the table. He wears neither a welders' helmet with its medieval-looking eye shield nor gloves to protect his sooty hands from the hot metal; rather, he looks more like a weekender working on a boat engine in a ripped, short sleeve red polo, shorts and sneakers. A healed burn on the inside of his right wrist is testament to the lack of protection, as is a nasty-looking slice down his left shin.

"I need to feel everything I'm touching," Goodyear says. "If I have gloves on, they get in my way. Finished surfaces need to be absolutely smooth, but it's more than that. I have to make a connection with the metal, and I can only do it with my hands."

The metalwork Goodyear is turning out these days is visible from a bike tour of River Ranch, where from dawn till dusk, the bang and twang of construction crews adds their chorus to the neighborhood's songbirds. Goodyear's small bronze gates incised with the flora and fauna of Louisiana are tucked into walled patios, and second-story French doors open onto his delicately scrolled balconies. A highly elaborate Italianate balcony is the focal point of the façade of Pam and Rusty Lamb's multi-million dollar mansion rising on the banks of the Vermilion River. Designed by Michael Henry, the 18,000-square-foot house is an over-the-top Italian villa fantasy. When Henry envisioned the metalwork details ' the balcony, stair rail, rustic mantle for the bar and wine glass rack ' there was only one craftsman in the area he even considered.

"It's difficult to find someone around here who has Ralph's expertise in metal fabrication," says Henry. "Nobody comes anywhere near his quality. Ralph is artistically inclined, and the historic quality of the work interests him. A lot of fabricators throw their hands up in the air and say, 'Ooh, we can't do that. Ralph stepped up to the plate, and he's always done everything I've asked him to do and more."

Goodyear is both designer and fabricator in his one-man shop, Artistic Design Fabricators, on General Mouton. He had very brief associations with several metal fabricators in town over the years, but each time concluded that he needed to run his own shop in order to take on the type of one-of-a-kind projects he prefers. He rarely buys prefabricated wrought iron elements from catalogues, choosing to make each part himself rather than use mass-manufactured components.

For the Lamb house, Goodyear researched European examples from Baroque to Beaux Arts, looking for ironwork patterns with both the fluidity and flourish that could stand up to Henry's high style. Then he designed all the elements ' scrolling curls accented with sprouting acanthus leaves and 24-carat gold leaf rosettes. From a pencil sketch to a computer-aided design drawing, the piece evolves before Goodyear cuts the panels. He uses everything from a hammer and an anvil to lasers.

And that's the easy part.

To take a flat iron section and turn it into an organically curved banister with a handrail shaped to the measure of a human hand is where the master craftsman takes over from the artistic designer. Goodyear only half-jokes that he worked with metal in previous lifetimes. "I can make metal go anywhere I want it to go," he says. "It's like second nature. I know how to soften it, everything from planishing it to burnishing it to polishing it to welding it, to every kind of way to work metal, that's my kind of thing."

In Renaissance Europe, artisans learned their trade by apprenticing for master craftsmen. Goodyear's education in metal work inadvertently tracks that system. After his parents divorced when he was a child, his mother had the good sense to hire male babysitters for her five young boys. Neighbor Mike Thibeaux, who played with them as much as he kept order, was idolized by the boys ' and Thibeaux's best friend is Matt Stuller. When a young Stuller set up shop in his father's orthodontist office on General Mouton, Thibeaux often hung out at the atelier, and 13-year-old Goodyear would be dropped off by his mother after school to spend his afternoons in the workshop. His job was to polish the jewelry. "I was very much the little kid in the room," Goodyear remembers. "They were like the coolest guys in the world. This was Greg Gilman and Ray Weiland and Sam Corol. They were like gods to me."

As he grew older, Stuller gave Goodyear an opportunity to begin working in precious metals. Even as an adolescent, he was a natural. "I just had to see it one time, and I'd remember," Goodyear recalls. "How to weld things together, how to set stones, how to bend it, how to anneal it, how to get it to go right where you want it to go." He also learned the business of building up capital, making a ring on his own time, selling it, investing his cash to buy more gold and stones. And he began to design for Stuller. "I actually have things I designed long, long ago still in the Stuller catalogue today. See that design? I sold that ring and bought a car with it. A Datsun 260 Z. I was probably somewhere between 17 and 18."

After an unhappy attempt at getting a business degree from UL Lafayette, Goodyear dropped out and immersed himself in art and architecture books borrowed from the library. His knowledge of European style, art movements and noted artists such as Diego and Alberto Giacometti and Edgar Brandt is largely self taught, with help from friends like the late Natalee Farasey. He went on to open his own jewelry manufacturing plant, Precision Cast, in Abbeville in the 1970s. His custom designs were selling, but he wasn't satisfying his creative needs, because he says the client was usually a man, buying for a woman. "And this man was buying a ring for his wife, his girlfriend, his daughter, his mistress, his something. And any jewelry of significance, the guy was the one with the money, and he typically could care less about design, aesthetic style, what it was. He wanted the biggest bang for the buck. It got to be that I couldn't express what I knew I wanted to express."

By the mid-80s, he stopped making jewelry and moved into metal fabrication. "It's really the same thing; the more you think about it, a ring is a very small sculpture," Goodyear explains. "What I did was just enlarge it. I'm still making jewelry basically, but it's just for homes." That's when he started working with home designers and architects, creating custom chandeliers, fire screens, tables, mirrors, doors, gates and stair rails.

"I walked into his studio," says designer Todd Zimmerman, "and we hit it off, like we had a soul connection. He's most passionate about his work. It's not about money for Ralph; he does it because he loves it. From conception to execution to installation. He is a true artist."

Like Henry, Zimmerman says it's a luxury for architects and designers to work with someone who thinks like a designer, not a metal worker or a welder. "He's pretty unique in this area. I practiced design in Dallas for 15 years," Zimmerman says. "There was nobody doing what Ralph is doing here in Lafayette. There are companies you can commission to do something, but no one local." Beyond artistic abilities, Zimmerman says Goodyear has a sensitive nature that lets him intuitively pick up what the client needs and to translate that feeling into sturdy metal works of art.

"Years ago," Goodyear says, lighting up a quick cigarette before going back to work on his stair rail, "I'd have people come up to me and say, 'Ralph, you're welding for a living? You need a job? We'd love to have you come work for us.' My son, he was very young at the time, he was worried about me because I'd come home dirty. It's hot, it's sweaty, it's dirty. Like a blacksmith shop. Sometimes it's hard; it's strenuous. But it's one of those things ' I can't imagine doing anything else. It's just what I love to do. I think about it all the time, 24 hours a day. I'm thinking about something we're going to make, something we did make, something we can do better this way, improve that way. It's really fun."

Goodyear then ignites his torch, which flares with a loud pop, and steps back into his all-consuming fire.

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