John Travis is in it to win it.
Come June 24-28, you’ll find the 41-year-old Hutchinson resident in Louisville, Kentucky, competing in the SkillsUSA Championship. The national competition draws more than 6,500 outstanding career and technical education students — all state contest winners — who will compete hands-on in 103 different trade, technical and leadership fields.
Travis, a welding instructor at Ridgewater College and a firefighter for the Hutchinson Fire Department, has brought his experience and skills together to create his entry, “Culmination,” a welded, aluminum sculpture of a firefighter helmet. He chose the title because it signifies the culmination of a body of work that has taken him 20 years to complete.
“I always had a vision for it,” he said.
Travis started working on the design in January, documenting the process every step of the way. In the end, it took a total of 120 hours to complete.
“I wanted it for the state competition (in April) and I wanted to take my time and not have to rush it,” he said.
Travis chose aluminum as the metal for the sculpture because it had the look he was going for. It could be polished and he didn’t want to have to worry about it rusting.
No paint or powder coatings were allowed, so to achieve the look he wanted, Travis relied on different finishes achieved through techniques such as polishing and sandblasting.
“I did whatever I could to add good finishing touches without overdoing it,” he said.
He added contrast by choosing copper wire for the helmet strap, which he braided and ran through a roller to flatten it. The shield bears the number 343, which is in honor and remembrance of the number of firefighters who died on Sept. 11, 2001.
Travis entered “Culmination” in the SkillsUSA state contest in April. He won in the category of welded sculpture and advanced to the national competition next month.
“I’m excited to compete with people across the country,” he said. “Everyone there has the ability to join metals. It’s their vision that sets them apart.”
Looking back at the process, Travis said he wouldn’t change a thing.
“It matched the vision,” he said. “I’m my biggest self-critic. It was hard to leave it alone. I had to verbally, outloud tell myself to leave it.”
That said, he enjoyed the creative experience.
“It was so fun,” he said. “I loved it. I enjoyed every single second of it. I’d do it again.”
Travis is hoping there are more sculptures in his future.
“It’s certainly my hope that people will see it and want me to make one for them,” he said. “My end goal is if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life. It’s my passion.”
Rocky Mountain home
Travis was born and raised on a farm in Colorado. He was 21, with no clear sense of direction for his life or career, when a terrible accident changed everything.
“My parents were in a fiery explosion of an oxy-acetylene cutting torch and tanks on our farm,” he said. “My stepfather was killed, and my mother received third-degree burns over 40 percent of her body.”
During his mother’s recovery, which took months of hospitalization, Travis had to learn to grieve and cope with his new circumstances. He also discovered he had the desire to help people in need. As he worked through his feelings, his family faced another tragedy. His cousin’s 5-year-old son died in a house fire. Later that year, it was Sept. 11, 2001, when four coordinated terrorist attacks took place against the United States.
“I think everyone felt that huge sense of fear and loss,” he said. “It took awhile to pick up the pieces.”
For Travis, it meant doing something with all that experience. He started school for emergency medicine and joined the fire department in Evans, Colorado.
“I had to gain as much knowledge of fire, its science and destruction, and give back to those faced with terrible circumstances,” he said. “As a volunteer and career firefighter, I was always hungry to be better. To say that I fought fire with a chip on my shoulder was a gross understatement.”
Evans was working as a full-time captain when the economy tanked in 2008. Last hired, he was the first let go.
His wife, Kathryn, was from Hutchinson. They both agreed that if they ever moved it would be to Minnesota. During that discussion, Travis reached out to Hutchinson Fire Chief Brad Emans. He was told to give him a call when he moved to town.
The couple, with their daughter, Evelyn, made the move in 2012. In an interesting twist, the family bought the home that had belonged to Emans’ mother.
Firefighting and welding
Once settled, Travis joined the local fire department and decided to go back to school. He started taking welding classes at Ridgewater College.
“Welding would be a hard step to take for people crippled by fear,” he said. “I didn’t want to live in fear.”
He found he liked welding.
“I learned as much as I could about oxygen and acetylene, their uses and the byproducts of combustion,” he said. “I learned the explosion on our farm was due to a malfunction with the regulator on the torch.”
In another interesting twist, the student became the teacher when Travis was asked to be a welding instructor at Ridgewater.
“I was a little surprised when I was asked,” he said.
It made sense when Travis thought about it, because he had the skill set from his welding classes and the teaching ability from the continuing education classes he had taught and taken as a firefighter in Colorado.
Looking back over the past 20 years, it’s clear why “Culmination” is a fitting title for his sculpture.
“This piece is my coping with a tragedy by gaining knowledge in structural firefighting, EMS and metalworking,” he said. “This piece is a reminder of loved ones lost, 343 dedicated firefighters who died on Sept. 11, and to those in the unique position of rebuilding by gaining knowledge that was once unknown.”