Meet the Monterey couple who got Dennis the Menace back on his feet
MONTEREY – He was sliced, stolen and submerged, only to turn up soggy – and footless. Dennis the Menace has gone through the wringer these past few months, getting a taste of his own devilment. And then some.
But after a series of bad breaks, the bronze rascal is back on his feet – both of them – thanks to a local metal fabrication shop conveniently fit for bringing Dennis back to his full mischievous glory.
Eric and Stacey Johnson are the owners and operators of Pacific Metalcraft, a small operation based out of Monterey that specializes in metalwork, unique furniture design, sculpture and sculpture restoration. Last month, the artistic team helped repair El Estero Park’s beloved Dennis the Menace statue, that was cut and stolen in August but found at the bottom of Roberts Lake in Seaside in February.
Based on the Peninsula for the past 17 years, the pair know the life-sized rendering of Hank Ketcham’s cartoon creation well. So when the city of Monterey needed help welding Dennis back together, the Johnsons offered their time and materials.
“I mean, the fun part is that we were able to be a part of this really beloved sculpture,” said Stacey Johnson.
“We were kind of adopted by Monterey,” Eric Johnson added. “It feels good to be able to help when I can because it’s just, I don’t know, it’s just such a great place.”
The Johnsons moved to Monterey in 2005. After coming to the area for a sculpting internship, they decided to stay and not look back. A year after, Dennis the Menace was stolen for the first time.
In October 2006, the statue – erected some 18 years earlier – was unbolted and removed from its perch at El Estero’s Dennis the Menace Playground. At the time, city officials offered a cash reward for any insight on where Dennis went but didn’t turn up any leads.
Five months after Dennis disappeared, the city commissioned a replacement for the playground, cast from a mold of the previous statue. Then, it was the Marina-based Monterey Sculpture Center that fashioned a substitute. But with the center since closed, finding someone to restore Dennis this time around was a tricky feat.
The Johnsons were an unsuspecting local luxury in the way of sculpture repair.
“We were encouraged (by some friends) to take on the project because there’s no else on the Peninsula that really does this sort of thing anymore,” Stacey Johnson said.
Usually, repairing a piece like Dennis the Menace takes expertise from a foundry, a metal casting facility, that specializes in bronze work.
For years, the go-to statue repair spot on the Central Coast was the Monterey Sculpture Center. But in 2019, after 40 years on the Peninsula, the facility closed its doors for good. In turn, sculpture services were moved to the American Fine Art Foundry in Burbank.
Today, a handful of metal casting foundries scatter the state. Those dealing in bronze are located in Berkeley, Sacramento, Paso Robles, Oxnard, Glendale and San Diego.
“It’s definitely a dying art,” Eric Johnson said. “You can take classes in trade school to weld but you’re going to be doing a lot of railings, which is fine – that’s what people need. Some of the bigger places around here have construction stuff and you can do that if you like.”
“But you never wanted to be a welder,” Stacey Johnson cut in, turning to her business partner.
Welding structures like a hand railing or window frame is a different craft than the fine-turned welding required for casting and fixing fine art, the Johnsons explained.
A cast metal art piece starts with a first draft forged in clay. The piece is then cast in several parts, which are later welded together and ultimately grinded back to create the illusion that the work was always whole. That process takes a keen eye and a sculptor’s hand. Repairing another artist’s work is an added challenge.
“You have to be able to match the texture and get it just right,” Stacey Johnson said. “Every artist has unique textures that they put on their pieces. If you think of the difference between touching up a Picasso versus touching up a Monet – that’s two different brush strokes. This is the same.”
In Dennis the Menace’s case, repair work meant matching the smooth texture of the statue’s original artist, Wah Ming Chang.
An Academy Award-winning animator, Chang created the mold for Monterey’s original Dennis the Menace sculpture in 1988. He was commissioned by Hank Ketcham, the creator of the famed Dennis the Menace comic strip, who lived on the Monterey Peninsula for decades.
Four copies were fashioned out of Chang’s original mold. One statue went to Dennis the Menace Playground – before it disappeared in 2006 and was replaced – while another went to the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. A third statue went to the Arnold Palmer Children’s Hospital in Orlando, Florida. The last went to the Pebble Beach home of Ketcham, where he lived before dying in 2001.
Chang, also a resident of the Peninsula, died two years after Ketcham in 2003. Fortunately, getting Dennis back into top, rabble-rousing condition after his most recent disappearance was easy enough, the Johnsons said.
When Dennis was stolen in August, the thieves used a grinder to cut him at the foot. His nose was also damaged through the incident, likely from being dragged on the ground. More than five months later, the 3 ½-foot-tall statue was dredged up from Roberts Lake, where it sat completely submerged in water 4 feet deep. By the time divers from the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office brought the character to shore, Dennis was full of mud and water.
Still, dripping aside, actual restoration wasn’t too laborious. Repairs took a couple of hours.
“With Dennis the Menace, it was really easy,” Eric Johnson said. “He was cut through the foot midway. It was a matter of welding it and grinding it back so that the texture matched. Sometimes, when a repair is tricky, you have to get the original artist involved. Luckily, (being posthumous), Dennis was really straightforward. And we also had images of what he looked like before.”
At least, straightforward for Eric Johnson, whose unlikely path to offering metal fabrication services on the Monterey Peninsula made him remarkably suited for revamping Dennis.
An sculptor first and foremost, Johnson spent much of his career creating and selling his own artwork out of galleries. But when the pandemic hit, galleries closed, siphoning his source of income. Meanwhile, Stacy Johnson, who was working as a yoga instructor at the Monterey Sports Complex, also saw her line of work falter to COVID. Needing some way to make a living, they scrambled to pull together their skill sets to get by.
Eric could weld and Stacey had a background in management.
In October 2020, they formed Pacific Metalcraft. For the past two years, they’ve operated out of a small shop space near the Monterey Regional Airport, slowly publicizing their services through word of mouth. (Pacific Metalcraft doesn’t have a website but can be found on both Facebook and Instagram.)
When they were just getting off the ground, Eric Johnson took anyone who called or walked through the door, he said, hoping to build a local clientele. Now, he’s booked six months out with a roster of clients that includes the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey Plaza Hotel – and the city of Monterey.
“I used to come home at the end of the day pulling my hair out. I’d come to the shop and be kind of busy but wonder what’s next?” he said. “There were definitely times where I wondered if this was going to work, if I was going to have to go back to what I was doing. But now we’re more than two years into this.”
Most of the time, the projects that the Johnsons take on for Pacific Metalcraft are less art-based and more in the lane of hand railings and detail work (a lot of right angles). Those orders are accepted gratefully, but what the pair say they’d really prefer to pursue are projects akin to Dennis: sculpture restoration or even custom, one-of-a-kind furniture.
Simply put, Eric Johnson is looking to imbue a little more art into his welding, calling back his pre-pandemic days in the galleries.
On the side, Johnson still sculpts when he can. Calls from neighbors or friends of former clients to pause his day-to-day work for a quick fix around town are also frequent.
“That’s why I reached out to the city” about Dennis, he said. “I told (them) that I’ve done hundreds of things like this, so please bring it by the shop, I’d do it for free.”
Between a growing catalog of simple repairs and larger projects, Pacific Metalcraft is quietly leaving its mark on Monterey County.
“We don’t have kids, so for me at least, the fact that we’re leaving little pieces of our connection to Monterey is kind of special,” Stacey Johnson said. “I can point to something and say, ‘Hey, right there, Eric fixed that little piece.’ Or, we had some friends visiting from out of town, and I totally pointed out some hand railing that Eric repaired at the (Monterey Bay Aquarium). I’m like, we did that! That’s cool.”
Add Dennis the Menace to the list, too.
“We have nieces and nephews that come out and visit. Not that long ago, they all wanted to go to this cool playground (El Estero) we told them about. Now when they come, we can point to Dennis and say, ‘Look at that piece of art. We had a part in that.’ Then they’d look at us and say, ‘Really? You’re cool,’ or something like that,” Eric Johnson said, laughing.
Where exactly the Johnsons will see their handiwork on display is still up for debate, but city staff have some ideas they’re toying with. According to Karen Larson, Monterey’s director of parks and recreation, the city is currently figuring out where to place the newly repaired statue. Worried putting Dennis back where he was at El Estero will invite more thievery, staff are hoping to stick the sculpture indoors.
“For the statue that was most recently repaired, we’re thinking about putting him in the El Estero Park Center” complete with a new base, Larson said.
She didn’t have a timeline for when Dennis’ new home would be ready but did say staff are “working on finalizing plans.”
“Dennis is a beloved icon for our department,” Larson said. “We’re definitely working it out.”
As for what will be the next centerpiece of Dennis the Menace Playground, there are talks that a new Dennis – cast out of materials much less expensive than bronze – will assume the post. But those plans are also tentative.
If another rendering of Dennis is indeed needed, Eric and Stacey Johnson are happy to oblige.