Talk of the town: 91-year-old metal sculptor has built her career on defying stereotypes

At 12 years old, Rose Wunderbaum Traines was working in the family scrapyard in Montpelier, Indiana, with a welding cutting torch. Her brother had been working alongside their father; but, after volunteering to enlist in the Army during WWII, he trained Wunderbaum Traines to take his place.


“I then was able to go with dad after school hours, vacation times, Saturdays, and go with him to different areas, different garages, different farm areas, and places where they had old trucks, old cars, and old farm machinery; and, I cut those things down with my torch when I was about 12 years old,” says Wunderbaum Traines, now 91 years old. “I could see people standing kind of far back going, ‘Look at that little girl cutting down that truck,’ and comments like that that were just kind of interesting.”


The town continued talking about Wunderbaum Traines, who was a self-proclaimed tomboy, through her teenage years when she began working in a chemical equipment factory.


“I riveted some while I was there. So, the whole darn town called me ‘Rosie the Riveter’ and I liked it,” she says.


Wunderbaum Traines is still the talk of the town; but, when people speak of her, it’s of her talent as an accomplished metal sculptor. Through her career, she has created over 630 sculptures – no two identical – and each varying in size.

Rose Wunderbaum Traines stands with one of her metal sculptures that is prominent in her home – a cowboy that features a hat made from a cowbell, chaps crafted from shoe horns, and boots created out of hooks from old logging chain.


“I think that we are so fortunate to have someone who is as accomplished as she is and at the age of 91 still working and creating new art and creating commissioned pieces,” says Amy C. Powell, executive director of Art Reach of Mid Michigan.


“I feel like having her as a resource and one of our advocates as well is phenomenal. It gives us such joy to have her in the community.”


While her love for metal sculpting shines through her home and life, Wunderbaum Traines didn’t plan for a career in it when she attended college. After attending Indiana State College for two years, then transferring to Michigan State University for one year when her family moved to Mount Pleasant and bought a different scrapyard, Wunderbaum Traines finished out her education at Central Michigan University, graduating in 1951 with a major in speech and recreation. However, in her senior year of college, Wunderbaum Traines accepted the trajectory that her life had been on since she was a young girl – metal sculpting.


“I realized I had loved working with metals all along the way,” she says gently.

Mount Pleasant resident Rose Wunderbaum Traines looks through various pieces of metal in her garage.


With her “best agent” at her side, her husband, Bob, who she had married in 1949, Wunderbaum Traines set out for a career in metal sculpting. In a time when women were to support men in their careers rather than the other way around, once again, the young Wunderbaum Traines defied the stereotype. It took time; but, in 1964, she got her big break when she was invited to present her first professional exhibition at her alma mater - Central Michigan University - in its art room in the University Center.


“It was received wonderfully well,” she reminisces. “A professor at the university called me while the show was still on and says, ‘Rose, do you ever take the Grand Rapids paper?’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t.’ And he said, ‘Well, I suggest you buy a Sunday paper.’”


Wunderbaum Traines was the talk of the town; but, now, it was for her sculptures.

“On the roto section, the whole front was a photo of me standing by one of my sculptures,” she says. “And inside was a story about the show and about my sculptures and about me. It was like a springboard, that particular first show, because I started getting invitations from various states. I started receiving invitations to present solo exhibitions and that was so exciting to me.”


Over the years, Wunderbaum Traines has presented over 60 solo exhibitions, as well as delivered a variety of gallery talks and lectures across the country.


“Bob and I decided to get a motor home,” she says. “We became wonderfully in love with motor homing – that way we were able to live in the top part of it and carry the sculptures in the bottom part of it.”

Rose Wunderbaum Traines stands with one of her metal sculptures – one which won an award in New York at the Salmagundi Club.


Looking back on over 70 years of metal sculpting, Wunderbaum Traines gets teary as she thinks about the proudest moments of her career.


“I’ve won lots of awards in New York and Boston and Hilton Head, South Carolina,” she reflects. “Central has had me as Outstanding Alumni. I had a chance to ride in their homecoming parade.”


Several of her sculptures can be found throughout Mount Pleasant, including at McLaren Central Michigan and Central Michigan University.


“Rose is such a treasure. She has a long and storied history here at CMU and in the Mount Pleasant area,” says Marcie Otteman, executive director of Alumni Relations and Development Strategies at Central Michigan University. “We are thrilled that one of her pieces, Wound and Wound She Goes, resides in the Carlin Alumni House. That piece along with others on campus are great inspirations to our students as they incorporate the whimsical with everyday items and ask us to look at the world in a different way.”

A work-in-progress sculpture of children reading sits in Rose Wunderbaum Traines' garage.


There are likely many proud moments still ahead for Wunderbaum Traines in her career because, while some may end the chapter of their career at 91 years old, she has no intention of stopping. In addition to presenting an exhibition this winter at the Elliott Museum in Florida, she says she is writing a book. The book, which doesn’t have a release date yet, will describe a little about her history and include many photos of her sculptures.


“(My publisher) wants it to encourage people to think about how much there is to be enjoyed in life and maybe take an interest in what goes into my sculptures and what they can do in sculpting or artwork too to appreciate the ability to do art or create,” she explains.


Most of all, though, Wunderbaum Traines plans to continue doing what she loves most and is most proud of – bringing joy.


“People who have seen the exhibitions say they’re happier when they leave than when they came in because my work makes them happy, and that pleases me.”

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