At first glance, the town of Oracle looks like an ordinary slice of small-town America.
There's the obligatory country store, pizza parlor and barbershop scattered along the main drag. Traffic is sparse and people are friendly. Nothing looks unusual--until you come across Sue and Jerry's Ranch Store Center, featuring a large horse sculpture near the property entrance.
"You can't miss us," says owner Jerry Parra.
Walking past the horse, visitors are greeted by an assortment of metal sculptures in an outdoor gallery of sorts. A space alien stands at attention; a miner carries his tools; a skeleton is ready to zoom away on a motorcycle. Each turn yields a new creation, as the sculptures are scattered about in no particular order.
All crafted by Parra, each piece has a past life. His art is made out of old car and motorcycle parts, antiques, farm machinery, garden equipment and whatever else comes his way. Fenders, hood ornaments and a rake are clearly seen in various sculptures.
Parra doesn't pass up good used parts. "People call me and ask me if I want material for my artwork, or I'll go down to Oracle Recycle and get stuff from there," he says.
Walking through the land of metal animals, skeletons and other interesting characters, Parra modestly describes each piece and how he began his career as an artist.
"I knew I had a talent in art. It was just getting around to the right type of art. ... My son got into metal work and bought a lot of equipment. He left it to me after he moved to California," he says.
Parra was not taught how to make his art--"it just came to me," he says. He explains that it was only after years of working and creating his pieces that he finally called himself an "artist."
Parra began creating metal sculptures seven years ago, when he and his wife, Sue bought the Ranch Store Center. The 3 1/2-acre spread houses Sue and Jerry's shop, Jerry's art studio and workshop, rental storage units and even a tattoo shop. His son even has a music studio on the property.
The front end of a Minnesota Plymouth graces the entrance to the store, while the front end of a cherry-red Dodge hangs in a corner. A walk around the shop provides an almost mind-boggling diversity of products.
"We buy, sell and trade," says Parra, sounding like a proud owner. "We have Apache baskets, Indian artwork, pots from Mexico, clothes, ironwood, a piano, antiques, spurs, stirrups, books, musical instruments, room dividers made out of spurs, boots, shoes, knives and jewelry." Not mentioned were silverware, dishes, dolls, blankets and furniture, among other items.
Back outside among his metal creatures, Parra discusses his favorite pieces, one being the aforementioned "Skeleton Rider. " Made out of Harley motorcycle parts and topped off with a metallic skeleton head and an American flag, he says it is popular with his customers, too.
While Parra enjoys making each creation, his favorite pieces to make are life-size metal kachinas.
"It's like putting a big puzzle together," he said.
Parra's craftsmanship expands beyond metal sculptures, as he also makes headboards, Western furniture and kachina dolls. His art gallery--in the back corner of his property--includes an exhibition of kachinas made out of natural materials, furniture, wall hangings and additional metal sculptures suitable for indoor display. Parra also makes metal gates for homes and ranches, selling them for $200 to $4,500. His gates are visible on many of Oracle's ranches.
Parra grew up on Oracle and spent his youth working on the ranches, cutting weeds and trimming trees.
"I used to know a lot of the ranchers. I worked at the C.O.D. Ranch. Back then, some of the people that were here hired kids to work for them to keep them busy," he says.
Born in 1951, Parra has seen Oracle grow since its simpler days.
"Everyone knew everyone," he says. "If I saw a dog, I knew where the dog belonged. As a kid in the early '60s, I used to see (cowboy) Luis Carmello come in from Campo Bonito with a pack of mules. He'd come down once a month and get supplies. All the kids would ride the donkeys. That was one of the sources of fun around town."
Today, incoming developers are changing the landscape of his hometown--something that does not bother Parra.
"It's for the better," he says. "It gives the adults and children more opportunity."
Growth also may be in store for Parra's career. He's had customers from Australia and Germany and has shipped smaller pieces to Michigan and Washington. He's worked on two bronze sculptures currently on display in Iowa: an 11 1/2-foot-high Viking and a piece called "The Promise of America," depicting a Norwegian family immigrating to this country.
Parra initially declined an offer from Tucsonan businesswomen who wanted to put his art on eBay. However, he admits he is still considering the idea.
"I just like making different and new things," he says. "It's a challenge when people ask me to make something and use my imagination. ... They want to see the artist come up with something. I have a lot of ideas."
As for future plans, Parra knows one thing: He wants to continue making his art.
"I don't want it to be like what everyone else makes," he says.
Glancing at his collection of metal animals, skeletons and other creations, it's easy to conclude there's no chance of that.