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Portsmouth, RI: The Tin Can Man

Portsmouth, RI: The Tin Can Man
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Yankee classic from January/February 2001

In a small, white house on a side street off a side street in the seaside town of Portsmouth, Rhode Island, there lives a village so lightweight a child could pick it up and carry it away, but strong enough to lift the weight of the world off the shoulders of Bill Souza, who created it — and its bridge, and its river, and its train station, and its horse and rider.

“Don’t expect too much,” Bill says as he parts the heavy drapes that reveal the silvery village shimmering in the light of the overhead fluorescent. “It’s only scrap aluminum and beer cans,” he says with a mischievous glint in his eyes. The village is in his basement, on top of his pool table. He hasn’t played pool in decades and he doesn’t drink beer, but this is what he’s created, the bricks and mortar being the cans he’s picked up beside the road, thousands of them, maybe millions. Although he has been working on this little town for some 15 years, it isn’t finished yet. “There are still some details I want to add,” he says.

Bill Souza is now 74 years old, fit and trim with a golfer’s tan, but back when he was 40, he had a hard time sleeping. He was working as a boiler man for a cotton mill. It was hard, physical work and he needed to sleep, but sleep would not come. He went to his doctor and the doctor said, “Get a hobby!”

“So I was reading the Sunday paper one day and I see this article about a woman in a nursing home who was making furniture out of beer cans, just for something to do. So I said, ‘Ah, that seems easy enough. I think I’ll try that.’ That’s how it all began.”

The first thing he tried was a rocking chair, cutting the top off a beer can and then cutting the sides into strips, bending and folding. “I figured out how to peel them down and curl them up, and pretty soon I had a rocking chair. I made a bunch of them. My wife’s friends went nuts over them. I put pink velvet on the seats and gave them away like crazy. Then I wanted to do something more challenging, so I started making ships, you know, little sailing ships, beer-can-size. I made hundreds of those and gave them away to everyone and his brother.”

Bill laughs to recall the early days of his nascent artistic career, which was a complete departure from anything he had ever done in his life. After the cotton mill closed down, he went to work as a maintenance foreman at Raytheon. He did that for 23 years. But at night he had his other world in the basement of his house.

“It was kind of progressive. After I’d made just about every piece of furniture I could think up, I wanted something that was really challenging, so that’s when I started to make the cars.”

Bill has never used plans. He works from photographs. “I just look at a picture of the car and then I start putting stuff together, gluing it. I use epoxy; that’s the best glue for this. It’s as strong as a weld.”

While he was in his car phase, he made dozens of them, including a 1905 Daimler-Benz tourer and a 1963 Corvair, in honor of his favorite car of all time. He also made a WW I Sopwith Camel and a replica of the Newport trolley he remembers riding when he was growing up.

He gave a lot of them away, but even so, he had 22 cars and airplanes around the house. “I didn’t know where to put them anymore.” The problem was easily solved when the Preservation Society of Newport County asked if it could have them to put on display at Green Animals, the historic house and gardens of philanthropist Alice Brayton. And so he donated them all to the historic site, which is just around the corner from his house. “But that left me without anything. I had to start something new.”

The village began with just one house. Bill was 18 when he fought in World War II as an infantryman in France and Germany. Later, he was sent to Vienna. The ornate architecture of the buildings there captivated him. “Those opera houses, man they were something,” he says now. Maybe he was thinking back to those buildings when he started the house that started the village. It’s ornate, with frilly trim and an arched front door.

With Frank Sinatra playing gently in the background, Bill spent night after night in his basement making the shingles for the roof, cutting and folding, and scoring the pattern into each fingernail-size shingle. “So then I’d get them done and I’d be all thrilled. Then it was time to shingle the roof, so I’d do that for a week or more.”

And so went the evenings, the weeks, and the years — one shingle, one door latch, one fence post at a time. Peer inside the tiny windows and you’ll see the furnishings, complete with fancy fireplaces, a grandfather’s clock the size of a child’s finger, and chairs the size of raisins.

Updated Tuesday, July 8th, 2008

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