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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

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Arts + CultureArtMeet the one-woman welding dynamo creating gorgeously ornate SF...

Meet the one-woman welding dynamo creating gorgeously ornate SF gates

Katie Wakeman of SheWelds aims to bring back some of the artwork and flair that makes the city the city.

Sometimes a gate is just a gate. But the custom gates that welder Katie Wakeman creates for San Francisco homes and businesses are anything but ordinary. They’re stunning works of art that enhance the structures they adorn, while also adding personality to the surrounding neighborhood. 

Wakeman’s been welding since 2006 and started her business, SheWelds, in 2015. At the time, she was living in the city. While most of her clients are still based in San Francisco, she now works and lives in her hometown, Santa Rosa. She moved back a few months before the pandemic hit to help her aging parents and resides in a granny flat on their property with her husband Derek. 

Wakeman workshop is also on the property. A vintage red Rambler rests in the grass beside the building. Wakeman credits the funky old car, which she bought about 20 years ago, for sparking her interest in welding. When a seat broke, she asked her neighbor, “a car guy,” if he could weld it back together. He was glad to oblige but insisted that she pitch in with the welding.

“I just kind of fell in love with it,” said Wakeman. “My grandparents were still alive then and lived in Windsor, Ontario in Canada. I went to a welding school there for a couple of months and stayed with them.”

Wakeman’s Haight Ashbury gate lit up at night. Photo via SheWelds

Upon completing her training, she returned to the Bay Area and jumped into earning a living as a welder. Though welding is still a male-dominated trade, according to Wakeman, there are more women welders in the Bay Area than other parts of the country. 

“I think we’ve always had a way higher percentage of ladies in the trades here than other places, which is killer,” she said. 

Early in her career, Wakeman did everything from shortening motorcycle kickstands to making lamps and furniture. An architect friend helped her land her first gate project for a peacock-obsessed client in the Castro in 2016. Wakeman created two complementary gates: a mini-gate at the foot of steps that lead up to an archway and the main gate.

From both corners of the small lower gate, a pair of graceful peacocks welcome visitors. Whimsical flowers twine their way up the larger gate, drawing the eye to a regal peacock perched on its curved top. The peacock’s tail is in full fan mode, its feather tips studded with jewel-like glass circles. The gates—especially the main gate— not only stop passersby in their tracks, they’re also a destination for walking tours and Instagrammers. 

The gates that started it all for Wakeman—the Castro peacock gates. Photos via SheWelds

“Everybody loved them, and I was like ‘this is exactly what I want to do.’ Functional art has always been a big thing for me,” said Wakeman. 

Since then, she’s focused almost exclusively on making gates. Her business customers include Muttville, a nonprofit that rescues senior dogs. When 48 Hills recently visited her workshop, Wakeman was well into her thirteenth gate. The large structure features Giant California poppies fluttering against an abstract backdrop of the Marin Headlands, a favorite hiking spot for the clients who commissioned it. Already striking, the gate promises to be a showstopper once Wakeman paints it in the rainbow palette of colors she’s selected. 

“I love bright colors—I’m totally an every-color in-the-coloring-book kind of girl,” she said, laughing. 

A playful pooch and colorful flowers adorn the gate Wakeman made for Muttville. Photo via SheWelds

With the exception of occasional painting help from her husband when she’s extra busy, Wakeman is a one-woman dynamo. (Painting a gate is usually the most time-consuming step of the creation process.) In addition to doing most of the painting, she handles designing, welding, fabricating and installing her creations herself. Prices for the gates varies significantly, depending on factors like size, materials and complexity of design, but range from roughly $5,000 to $40,000.

For inspiration, Wakeman loves Art Deco’s clean lines and architectural details. Color, and of course input from her clients, also come into play. After seeing her previous work, some people come to her with a specific idea of what they want. Others look to her for guidance. 

“I’ll ask them things like, ‘Who’s your favorite painter? What’s your favorite time period?’ If they can give me just a few things, I can make a first drawing,” Wakeman explained.

Wakeman and her workshop mascot, The Captain. Photo credit: Dorothy O’Donnell

From there, she either gets a thumbs up or makes tweaks to a drawing until the client’s satisfied, then dives into making their gate. The architecture of the building where a gate will be installed also influences her designs. For a classic Victorian in the Haight whose owner has lived in it since the 60s, for example, she created her first gate embedded with stained glass, a common Victorian feature. The end result meshes so well with the home, friends and others who’ve strolled past it say the gate looks like it was always there.

That makes Wakeman happy. So loves making gates for young people buying their first house in the city. She says adding a custom gate to a new home is a great way for the owners to make a statement about their sense of style and who they are.

“It’s kind of a gift to the neighborhood when you’re moving in,” Wakeman said. “When San Francisco seems to be losing a lot of the cool people, it’s nice to be able to bring back some of the artwork and flair that made the city the city.” 

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

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