Updated: May 12, 2021
Hot Steel Welding, in the high desert
By: Krysta Kearney
“I would never tell anyone I was a welder, it had to come with an explanation. I would just avoid the question. But now I am proud to say I am a welder. I was put down so much in the shops I felt like it wasn’t important, what I was doing.”
In an industry that has always been dominated by men, women are rising to the top, breaking through barriers, making an imprint not just for themselves but for the next generation. Cynthia Phillips has spent her whole career doing just this. Being a 16 year veteran in the industry hasn’t come easy as she has proven her abilities through countless challenges that have stood in her way that she has overcome. For women, welding as a career has traditionally been a path less traveled and is filled with roadblocks of social exclusion, misogyny, and internal doubt pushed by daily misconceptions and our mass media culture. Moxxi had the opportunity to chat with Ms. Phillips and learn the inside scoop about the industry, who she is, and what helps push her along the way of the path less traveled. So who is she? Who is the woman behind the welding mask...a woman who is doing what she loves, fighting in the front lines of gender equality?
Born and raised in Rockland County, in the sprawling neighborhoods outlining NYC, she learned from a young age what hard work and dedication can bring. With both of her parents having worked in Times Square in the seedy 1980s as Economists, they devoted their careers to doing something that they love, to support their goals and aspirations in daily life. For her parents, it was to grow a family. At this moment, for Phillips, her career is supporting her passionate lifestyle of making art and creating a home with her boyfriend in the high desert of California, while also traveling in their 1983 RV, a 22 foot Lazy Days. They love sight-seeing, discovering new habitats and viewing the many different ways of the world, only to bring them back to their humble abode and quiet lifestyle in Yucca Valley, CA. Phillips owns her own welding company, Hot Steel Welding where she commissions custom fabrication projects, takes on an array of welding jobs, teaches welding workshops and creates her own art, selling it at both local and national festivals.
Her love for metal began in 2005, when she took her first welding class at the highly accredited art school, Alfred University which is nestled in the finger lakes region of upstate NY. Instantly, she fell in love with the material and thus began her welding career. She couldn’t imagine going to school for anything else at the time; she knew it’s what she wanted to do.
“I love building something out of nothing, I just love the process, I get excited when I come up with a new idea.”
Upon graduation in May of 2007 she took a year to travel across the country, embrace life and really dial in on what she wanted to do next. This trip brought her back to NY, to Nayack. She got her first welding job, working for Erick David Laxman, who is a master custom furniture maker. Here, they built high-end custom furniture and large scale sculptures. Phillips says, “It was a great way to get in the door and have my first welding job.” She learned how to master tig weld, amongst other processes. Thankfully, the job was set up where she worked two days a week and had full access to the studio the other days, enabling her to create her own work. The shop was situated in a creative complex of like-minded businesses, a blacksmith as well as a set design company. With being in such close proximity to the other shops, she did a lot of freelance work as well.
After about three years of working for Laxman, Hurricane Irene swept through the region, leaving many in tragedy and decimating the custom furniture studios where she once worked. In the wake of the aftermath, communities struggled to heal from their losses. Thankfully for Phillips, she had already started transitioning into a full-time position as a set builder at Black Walnut, which is an Emmy award winning scenic environment company. Going from building intricate custom furniture to large scale, fast-paced set design work was a learning curve but she took to it well and embraced the challenge. Phillips worked on sets for NY based news shows such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.
Phillips was in a place in her life where she was ready to leave NY. She was 25, wanted to experience a world without winter or the threat of hurricanes, and was in general, craving a change of scenery. In 2013, knowing that there were a plethora of set building jobs in LA, she made the pilgrimage across the country. It was a big move with lots of risk. Her life was pretty comfortable as she worked in a labor union, had great benefits and paid time off but there is nothing worse than being unfulfilled. She knew there was something else out there and didn’t want to settle.
“I had better benefits than my parents who were working for the government.”
So she moved in with a friend, the one person she knew in LA, into her studio apartment which they shared. It was a make shift room (with no ceilings) inside a warehouse. Not the best living situation but it served her well. It was a tool that helped her get her feet on the ground. While hustling hard every day, she worked from sunrise and on most days, to well past sundown.
Phillips’ first job was working at a small fabrication shop where they built theater sets. She eventually moved on to a company called Vision Scenery where they built commercial sets and trade show booths for events like ComicCon and also stage sets for things like Daft Punk’s Grammy performance for the song, Get Lucky featuring Pharrel Williams and Stevie Wonder. It was at this job, where she experienced harassment issues from her fellow colleagues for the first time.
“That was the first shop I really had some harassment issues in, really major ones, from all sides…from my boss, from guys I worked with. So I lasted there for a year and a half until I just couldn’t do it anymore. I was pissed, I didn’t want to just quit because these guys were being mean to me so I kept it up until it got too intense.”
Men would be dumbfounded as to why she would even be there. Why would she want to be a welder? They built up resentment towards her, for no good reason. She recalls one guy that didn’t like her, based solely on the fact she is female. Phillips’ said, “He would always spit on me as I walked by him. That went on for a year.” Could you imagine? Every day, your coworker spits on you for no reason? Phillips’ is an expert at her job. Her skills are developed, she’s an expert. Not only can she weld in all formats and all metals but she also is skilled at reading drawings and executing projects on her own, without question. It was pretty apparent that the harassment wasn’t based on anything other than her gender.
“Some of my bosses wanted to take me out and I didn’t want to so when I said NO they tried to get me fired...like went to the head of the company. I was like, ‘I just want to work. I don’t want to go on dates with 55 year old men, I was 27...you know?!”
She learned through the years to keep quiet, and also to save incriminating text messages if she ever needed to use them. When she would address the harassment to higher ups, they would just look the other way. Phillip’ says it wasn’t all bad though. Thankfully with every job she had, there was always a shop mate or two that would support her, have her back and keep a lookout.
“It’s like if you didn’t work next to me you didn’t understand why I was there. People would be like, ‘Why would she be here?!!’...because it was literally just a dude fest…and then me (haha)!”
Throughout her career, Phillips’ has never changed who she is to conform to the social norms of the job or mask her identity. She has always continued to be herself, both inside and out, be expressive, beautiful, and feminine. It’s who she is. She doesn’t see the need, nor does she think you should have to change who you are to do the exact thing that you love. The harassment never stopped. Men would ask her why she would wear makeup in the shop and try to make claims that it’s her way of looking for attention.
“I’d be like, no, this is just me, I’m just like this, I don’t care. I will weld today, I will be alone and I will still wear makeup. It’s just me. It’s part of my style.”
“I always wear makeup in the shops. I would check with my compact to make sure I didn’t have a bunch of dirt on my face. I like to do dirty work but make it look pretty. I just like to look feminine and do my job.”
For over three years she worked for Show FX which is an entertainment design and fabrication company. This was a stable and productive working environment for her. Here, they built special effects for Vegas shows and a variety of other projects. Phillips took part in building the Beyonce homecoming stage for Coachella and also the noted stainless steel peacock chair that was used during her Formation World Tour.
“The Beyoncé chair was made completely out of stainless steel based on the wicker peacock chairs. I helped out on the project building the bottom base she sat on. She loved the one we made so much that she asked for two more as Christmas presents for her tour managers! Super cool project. Wish she knew a female welder helped build her chairs and stage for Coachella.”
In 2016, during the 6-year span of working in various shops around LA, she took a hiatus. The company that she had previously worked for in NY (Black Walnut) has a contract to build all news room sets for the Olympics. She left the busy shop life for three months to an equally (if not more) demanding role and moved to Brazil to build sets in Rio De Janeiro for the 2016 Summer Olympics. Everything is built from scratch, from the ground up. It’s quite the production.
“I flew to Rio in May of 2016 to install the NBC Olympic Coverage rooms where the athletes would be interviewed. We installed on Copacabana Beach and in the Olympic Park. I stayed throughout the games and remained on call everyday if something needed fixing. I even saw Michael Phelps win the gold a couple times. After the games we had 2 weeks to strike the set and fly home.”
After about a decade of working at shop after shop, (10 in total if we’re counting) she became discontented with the lifestyle and desired a life to do what she loves but on her own terms...and for her, no one else. It was really taking a toll on her life, as work didn’t really allow her to do anything other than well, work! She couldn’t plan her life.
“I didn’t want to work in shops anymore because I was sick of the overtime and the unpredictable hours.”
The inconsistency was unreal, companies would lay people off without notice. In 2019 she and her boyfriend decided to leave Los Angeles to retreat to the mountains. They had been struggling to find places of reasonable rent for some time, she was done with the long hours and instability and her job had started to take a pretty big toll on her heath. Her body was showing significant strain from the demands and it became clear that she wanted out. So they made the big move to Yucca Valley, CA.
It was challenging at first to get her business up and running as they moved somewhere unknown to them. It was a big move! They left what they knew behind and trekked to the desert, started totally new lives, a fresh beginning. When they first moved, the owner at Hicksville Trailer Palace asked Phillips’ if she could do some freelance welding work for him which eventually led to both her and her boyfriend becoming the innkeepers. Hicksville Trailer Palace is a trailer retreat motel in Joshua Tree, CA specializing in unique lodging allowing guests to engage all their senses of what the desert has to offer. This was a great role for them to fall into but it was also demanding and left little time for Phillips to get her own business up and running. They were the innkeepers for about a year until January of 2020 when the owner decided he was going to sell Hicksville, then the Covid-19 Pandemic hit.
“It was a blessing to be laid off because it made me really focus on getting back to what I want to do with welding.”
Phillips wasted no time and right away started to develop her business. She went around town and put up flyers on community boards for welding workshops. “Within the first day, I had a bunch of phone calls.” Everyone was calling, from locals to tourists. Metal is the main medium for desert art because it can withstand all of the harsh environmental elements. These workshops took off really quickly and then with the increase in precaution of Covid-19 it plummeted quickly, as she couldn’t host classes anymore. She knew she was finally doing what she wanted to do. The reward was unparalleled. There is nowhere else in the high desert for people to take entry level classes, so people were extremely excited. Phillips says it’s a way for people to come out, get a feel for welding and see if they like it. Welding classes can benefit people in so many ways, such as overcome fears, make an interesting date and be inspiring! These workshops are for all age ranges, with her youngest student thus far being 10 and oldest being 65! With the pandemic, she had stopped advertising classes but people were calling anyways. Since regulations have lifted, she is now teaching workshops again but on a smaller scale with less people.
“You’re never to young to learn how to weld and never to old (and I can teach you, haha) I started welding at 19 in art school and sometimes I would have loved to have started earlier.”
Business in general has really picked up for her. In addition to teaching, she does commission work for clients where no two jobs are the same. She goes on site and will fix and build custom fabrication jobs. People come to her shop too, where she will fix basically anything. She is up for any challenge.