#WhyWeWeld: Thea Ulrich
We'd love to hear more about your experience as a welder, Thea! When did you start welding?
I started welding in college - I went to RISD, an art and design school in Rhode Island. Funnily enough, what ignited my desire to learn how to weld was the circus! I toured with the circus as a professional aerialist when I was younger. I loved performing and being a part of such epic and large scale productions, but I wanted more - I wanted to learn how to build my own show. I had so many ideas that I wanted to be able to make "real" but I had no idea how...hence, learning to weld and create! To this day, I still perform on aerial sculptures that I design and weld myself.
In a nutshell that is why I think welding is so powerful and inspiring: as humans, we have this unique ability to imagine things that do not yet exist. When you can build, you can bring these things from imagination into the tangible, physical world. You can make your dreams a reality.
What advice would you give to someone starting out as a welder, or anyone who is interested in learning more?
Find a maker space, a community metal shop, or a trade school near you. Makerspaces are great because they often offer shorter intro classes so you can get a taste for the different types of welding and fabrication. This gives you the ability to figure out what you like, and then focus more on that. Also - reach out to people online! Offer your services to assist on a project and you never know what might happen...learning by doing is an excellent trick to becoming truly immersed.
Why did you start welding, and what convinced you to get involved in welding for a living? Did anyone, in particular, inspire you, or were you always more generally interested in the field?
I started welding because I had a lot of ideas that I wanted to create and I didn't want to wait around and be dependent on someone else to make them for me - I figured I would just do it myself! For a long time, I worked and taught in shops and studios that were entirely male except for me, and I didn't know any other female welders. The first female welder who I was able to work alongside was Jessi Combs who was an incredibly inspiring woman - I was deeply fortunate to be able to teach welding with her at Babe's Ride Out.
What line of work are involved in, specifically? I see on Instagram that you're also an artist, so would describe your work as more industrial, or something more creative? Or a mixture of both?
I do a mixture of things but mostly art or very customized commissions! I did a lot of work in the film and TV industry as an educator and a maker before coronavirus shut everything down. I also help out at FatStack Smokers - a custom smoker company that makes high-end texas style smokers.
I love anything that is detail-oriented and my dream is to have an aerial project constructed entirely out of titanium - a material that I really enjoy and that I learned how to weld at the Hobart Institute of Welding Technology.
I see you participated in the recent Microsoft Build conference -- that's awesome! What was that experience like, and what is it like to share your passion and work with others?
I love teaching! The Microsoft Build conference was a wonderful opportunity because I was able to share skills and techniques with people all over the world. I have taught both welding and blacksmithing on and off for many years. I love getting fancy with welding of course, but my favorite classes to teach are the beginner classes.
There are so many people out there who have no idea what welding really is, or they find it intimidating. The look in their eyes after they have completed their first weld - something they never imagined they could do! - is absolutely inspiring. People glow with a newfound sense of empowerment, it is amazing to be a part of.
Most recently I work with the women at Real Deal Revolution - we offer lots of different types of workshops in skilled trades. Our goal is to give people a taste, let them peek into a world that perhaps they have never been able to experience before, and more often than not our students who were beginners show up a year later with a customized motorcycle or something!
What is the biggest challenge you've encountered in working as a welder? Why is it important to keep going?
Well, of course being a woman in this field can come with a number of challenges - I feel I have to work twice as hard and be twice as good as anyone else because if I slip up even in the smallest way it could be used against me as evidence that 'women don't belong here'. It is important to keep going because it is up to us to create the world we want to live in.
However, I want to focus more on something else, and something that I hope that all welders would want to unite behind and fight for: my biggest challenge as a welder has been that skilled trades are not respected nearly as much as they should be in this country - financially and otherwise.
This is a huge challenge that welders, and indeed all craftspeople and makers, face in an era where most of the things we buy come delivered to your house from a web retailer by an exhausted, underemployed van driver, and then these things break and are discarded shortly thereafter. People don't understand why a piece I make costs more than one from IKEA - and that exploitation of both human lives and the planet's finite resources is a poor bargain for the few dollars they'll save on whatever coffee table they are purchasing.
This is the reality of where our products come from and are one we must contend with in order to start valuing human labor and skilled work again. We have to educate people on what it means to make things - not only because it will empower them to reevaluate (and perhaps change!) the world around them, but because only then will they start to properly understand the value of skilled craft.
Follow Thea on Instagram @theaulrich