From poverty to success through courage and determination.
Rise Up is an inspirational and impressive metal sculpture of a female form with the tail of a phoenix, created by a woman who has risen, phoenix-like, herself from the traumatic ashes of her former life.
“I was in an abusive relationship,” says Barbara Parsons, who now works professionally as Barbie the Welder. “I’ve faced alcohol and drug addiction. I’ve faced mental health issues. And I lived in hell for a very long time.”
But a lifelong interest in all things mechanical, including automobiles and motorcycles — and a more recent and very deep passion for welding — has brought her out of the darkness. Now based in Florida, Barbie is an accomplished metal sculptor, author, publisher and motivational speaker.
Barbie was raised in New York state, and growing up she says her two heroes were Evel Knievel and her dad. Knievel, because he was a daredevil on two wheels, and her dad because he was a creative and inventive jack of all trades who also rode a motorcycle. We’ll get back to motorcycles in Barbie’s life a little farther on in this story, as they do play a significant role. But right now, let’s learn more about Barbie.
Resourceful from the Beginning
Barbie’s dad was a diesel mechanic and sheet metal worker by trade. But, proving he really was a jack of all trades, Barbie recalls him also digging a full basement under their house, cutting a hole in the living room floor and installing a spiral staircase that he’d built.
“We were a creative family,” she says. “If we weren’t playing with educational toys like Lincoln logs, we were making our own toys, using juice cans with strings for stilts, or an oatmeal carton for a robot. I grew up, really, in the most beautiful way around two very out-of-the-box thinkers.”
Home schooled from first to fourth grade, by the time Barbie was in high school she’d decided to become an auto mechanic. She loved wrenching on things and getting her hands greasy. When she applied to a local Sears garage, however, the manager told her she’d need a college education before he’d even consider taking her on.
In 1993, she began taking auto mechanics at BOCES (Boards of Cooperative Educational Services of New York State). Soon a single mom, though, with a young son to care for, Barbie had to drop out just two years into the program as she could no longer afford the books.
And although she did eventually find employment as a mechanic, Barbie says the work environment was toxic. It was a place where she faced a great deal of sexism. Finally, she quit that, too, and starting in 2005 was supporting a negligent husband and their blended family by picking up and selling scrap metal.
Knowing her way around auto parts, too, she’d go to Pick-a-Part scrap yards and pull pieces from vehicles she’d then sell on eBay for a small profit. It was with that background, then, when in 2007, Barbie went to a neighbour’s place to watch a movie. They decided on Castaway, with Tom Hanks, who portrays a FedEx employee trapped on a deserted island after the company’s transport plane crashes. It’s the one where Hanks’ character spends much time talking to Wilson the volleyball. But that’s not what captivated her interest.
A Life Changing Few Seconds
“In the opening scene, there’s a woman welding wings,” Barbie says. The woman appears in a dimly lit Texas barn, working as a metal artist, sculpting and fusing the pieces together. It’s not a long scene. In fact, it’s only about six seconds of actual welding time. But it resonated deeply with Barbie. “It changed everything for me. It spoke to my soul like nothing ever before. I think I was drawn to the light of the sparks.”
At that time, still with the negligent husband who wouldn’t help support the family, Barbie told him she wanted to go back to BOCES to take welding. “He said no. Well, I made a defiant decision, and although we were living in subsidized housing and getting food stamps, I decided I’d save some money to take the training and learn to weld,” she says. “It took me a year to save up for the 104-hour course, and I learned enough to pass a welding test.”
An instructor at BOCES encouraged Barbie to visit Cameron Manufacturing & Design in Horseheads, NY. She’d dealt with sexism in the auto industry and wasn’t willing to face that again — she wanted to work for herself. The instructor wouldn’t take no for an answer, however, and took the entire class to Cameron for a shop tour.
“I was in love,” Barbie says. “I saw all the tools that I saw on TV shows like Monster Garage, and I interviewed for a job. I asked for $10 an hour thinking I was worth $9, and they gave me $13. Again, that changed my life. They had confidence in me when I sure didn’t. But thank God they did.”
Starting in March 2008, Barbie worked at Cameron until that fall. She was laid off for 10 months and was then called back. Barbie ended up staying for five years, becoming a journeyperson iron plate and sheet metal worker. “The love and respect they showed me and the knowledge they shared with me was the perfect storm of a way to learn the skills required for a fabricator who wants to be an artist,” she says.
The job at Cameron allowed Barbie to fix her credit. She bought a garage “that had a house attached to it,” and put TIG gear and a plasma cutter from Harbor Freight in the space.
“I started to learn how to sculpt and weld metal art,” she says. “At first, I was just tacking stuff together. Then I welded art, and only now do I refer to myself as a metal sculptor.”
Now, motorcycles return to the story. “I’d wanted a motorcycle my whole life,” Barbie says. “So while still working at Cameron, I bought a 2010 Yamaha V-Star 250. I didn’t have my licence or anything, and it sat in the garage with a few hundred miles on it while I took the training and got my bike licence. After that, I rode it a lot.”
On Her Own
Although completely happy working at Cameron, Barbie knew she’d need to leave to pursue her goal of becoming a true metal artist. She left on September 1, 2014, and began seeking commissions for her metal sculpting skills. It was a slow road, she says, and Barbie had soon run out of ways to finance her living expenses. “I sold a lot of stuff to keep my art going, and the Yamaha was one of the things that got sold. I was failing magnificently, but knew I was meant to be a metal sculptor but didn’t know how to market or brand myself,” she says. “To make money, I started welding together little motorcycle sculptures using scrap metal and old gears for wheels and chain for frames.” She’d take these pieces to motorcycle swap meets and sell them, where “they went like hotcakes.”
Next, in 2015, Barbie talked her way into performing a live welding show at the Americade motorcycle rally. She’d never previously welded before an audience, but in the best fake-it-until-you-make-it fashion, she approached several welding suppliers and was donated a set of welding curtains from Praxair Elmira.
At Americade, she welded her motorcycle sculptures live, and then sold them to earn an income. With a successful first event under her belt, Barbie took her welding shows up and down the east coast: she did 48 shows in 52 weeks in seven different states. Since then, she’s also welded live at Sturgis and SEMA.
Making a Living
In order to market her more artistic metal sculptures, Barbie set up an Etsy account, and then began teaching how-to-weld artistic projects on YouTube. “It brought me true joy to create, and I was self-taught as an artist and thought I could pass on some knowledge,” she explains. “I was taught to fabricate, but not how to be an artist, and that’s what I learned on my own.”
Commissions for metal art sculptures started rolling in, too, including two for Harley-Davidson and several other clients. Then came an email from a publisher — which Barbie thought at first was a joke — asking if she could write a book about welding simple sculptures using horseshoes. The result was Horseshoe Crafts: More Than 30 Easy Projects to Weld at Home. It was a success, and Barbie’s gone on to write five more titles — two dealing with welding projects and three others that are self-help books.
And finally, motorcycles returned to Barbie’s life. About two years ago, after working long and hard, she paid cash for a custom 1987 Harley-Davidson Sportster with a 1200 Buell engine. She’s enjoying the ride, and in 2023, plans to build her own chopper.
Barbie no longer lives in New York, as she fell in love with Florida after attending Daytona Bike Week in March 2022 and moved there. In the Sunshine State, she says she’s been living the life of a vagrant while searching for a house and shop to call her own. Barbie enjoys being immersed in the motorcycle industry, as it’s something she says, “works hard and always gives back.” Will she develop a line of Barbie the Welder custom motorcycle parts? “That’s something I’d have to think about,” Barbie says, and adds, “My time is best spent sculpting and creating art.”