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Portsmouth, RI: The Tin Can Man

“When I finished the house, I felt like there was something missing. I realized that it needed a fence around it, just to give it a finishing touch. That’s how it started. After that, I thought that a garage would be good. Then there had to be a car in the garage. Then I felt that a greenhouse would be good. Then came the train station and the chapel. You see? One thing leads to another. You get me down here and I’m in my own world. Believe me, I’m in my own world.”

The train that sits at the village station is a wood-fired steam engine. He found a picture of it in a book that tells the history of the railroad. “Some people have told me that the back is wrong, but the picture showed only the front. I couldn’t see the back. I had to use my own judgment.”

Bill sits down in his worn stenographer’s chair and pulls himself up to the little table. Snippets of aluminum litter the floor at his feet. He takes a shiny piece of can, smooths it with his big, rough hands, and then starts to score and fold. His fingers move quickly, and almost instantly he holds up a square post. “See, that’s how I make the columns. I can do them any size.” The columns on the house porch are decorated with tiny curls of gingerbread. “You know why I do that fancy trim? I cover my mistakes that way!” he says, rolling out a good belly laugh.

Bill thinks little of the skill it has taken for him to create what he has. He is somewhat bemused by the response he gets from people who come down into his basement to see his work. “They are amazed, especially old folks and children. They go bananas. I see it all the time, so it doesn’t seem like much to me. You know, it’s nothing much for me to make this stuff. If it doesn’t work out, I throw it out and start over again. It’s only beer cans, you understand?”

He estimates that the house alone consists of four or five hundred beer cans. He can’t even think about how many it took to make the entire village. Nor can he estimate how many hours he might have put into its construction. “I never stopped to think about how much time it took because I have all the time in the world. I could have sold a lot of my stuff, but the thing is that then it would be a job and I’d have to put a time on it — how much time it takes to make and how much each hour is worth. That’s not why I’m doing it.”

Along the way, Bill made most of the tools that he uses for this unique craft. A friend gave him some special scissors that the phone company uses to cut aluminum. For the minuscule curlicues, he has small rods that he wraps the shavings around. To get the effects that he wants, putting treads on the tires and patterns on rugs, he has had to improvise, using small metal blades and long slender bars, whatever works best.

Bill does not think of himself as an artist. In fact, he chuckles at the very idea. When people say his work is folk art, he doesn’t understand what the term means. But he knows what he loves.

“You know, I can do anything with aluminum. I can’t tell you why. I just can. I just love to work with it. You know what I love best about this? I come down here and I don’t know what I’m going to make. I start working and it just comes to me and pretty soon, I’ve got something. When I get finished, I look at it and I say, ‘I made that out of nothing.’ I didn’t have any plans, I just used the stuff that I have here, you know what I mean? I get a big kick out of that. It’s something out of nothing; something made out of trash. Yeah, I like that.”

Updated Tuesday, July 8th, 2008

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