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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.”

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