A canoe is intrinsically beautiful, even more so when it's gliding. But in the end it's a vessel, the way to a place unreachable by SUV or plane or even a noisy, heavy motorboat, a place where the water is white, coffee-colored, turquoise, or as clear as Fiji's.
It's the way down tiny, twisty Ozark Mountain streams, where brown and rainbow trout are tucked behind rocks. It's the way, first balanced on your shoulders and then balanced beneath you, to wilderness lakes too small for a floatplane to touch down and too far from roads for a Lund. It's the boat nimble enough to negotiate Pennsylvania whitewater and large enough to lug a week's worth of gear. Then the day comes, as it does with an old dog or an old friend, when it's hit its bag limit of rocks or been bettered by faster, lighter modern models. So, what do you do?
If your canoe happens to be aluminum and you're Bob Parker, 61, of Raymondville, Missouri, you reach for your black Magic Marker, a plasma cutter, and a wire brush on an angle grinder and you remind yourself and everyone else of where that canoe took you, of the dragonflies that alighted on its bow, of the eagles that circled over it, of turtles that slid off rocks as the canoe approached and fish that flopped on its floor. It's not like Parker had a grand plan to turn aluminum canoes into art. Like many other artists, he was accidentally inspired.
His canoe hit a rock, as canoes are wont to do, and Bob beat it back into a facsimile of its original form, as canoeists are wont to do.
"We did a float trip down the North Fork of the White River and my wife and I nearly wrapped the canoe around a big rock. It took ten people about an hour to get the canoe off of the rock. It was caved in so bad we had to stomp it out so we could finish the journey."
At home, working with a rubber mallet and the malleable metal had Parker wondering how else he might reshape it. He'd taken art classes in high school and had returned to art eighteen months ago, with metal as his medium.
"I always loved doodling and drawing, but I never could draw animals. Then I made a lion's face out of horseshoes and scrap metal. I took a hay bale ring and drew a lion's face on it and cut it out and I thought, 'Man, that looks really good with the rusty patina.' Then I did my first fish on flat metal because I love fish."
If Parker could make a fish out of flat metal, then…
"My first half a canoe took me about three weeks. I'd do one scene and polish it out. There were about 15 scenes on it."
A scene might be cattails or a plucky sunfish, each drawn by hand with a black Magic Marker, cut out with a plasma cutter, and polished with a wire brush on an angle grinder.
He displayed that first canoe at local art shows.
"People kind of went nuts over it."
So, he accepted his first commission. If Parker is to continue to do this professionally, efficiency is essential.
"My first canoe took about three weeks to finish, but I've found ways to do it faster. I've found the best way is the cover the half canoe with all my designs and animals and cut it all out at once. It's more boring and more like work to do it that way, but it's much faster. It takes me about a week to do one now. I bought a sand blaster and am hoping it'll be easier on my arms and shoulders than my wire wheel."
Parker isn't just thinking bigger and better with regards to tools.
"My next project will be a 10-foot tall canoe. It will be for a large home or a commercial site. I also want to do a whole canoe as a light fixture over a bar or a big table."
And he has new ideas for his "scenes."
"I really want to do a Pacific Northwest canoe with salmon and bears and a Canadian canoe with caribou, moose, northern pike and maybe a wolf. I keep getting all these different designs in my head and I can’t wait to cut them into the next, old, beat-up canoe."
Parker doesn't anticipate running short of "old, beat-up canoes."
"There are quite a few aluminum canoes in the Ozarks. People will hear what I'm doing and sell me their leaky canoes for little or nothing. I like the dents because that's their history. The light blue finish on the inside is often worn and I leave that so people can see what it was."
Parker is working on a couple commissions so people can remember what was.
"I've had people who want to do memorials. I had a grandmother who lost her grandson in a car accident and she said he loved rivers and turtles, so my canoe art was perfect for her."
Parker also has a canoe in the queue for a man who worked on F-15s in Alaska.
"It'll have eagles, a moose, and an F-15 too, of course."
And Parker is happy to help your canoe tell its tales.
"I'd be happy to take anyone's old, beloved canoe and turn it into art."
His work is more than cutting and polishing. The grizzled outdoorsman and former dairyman has leaked a little here and there when he helps people remember what was.
"Aluminum lasts and lasts and lasts, so it's an honor to do memorials for people. It's squeezed a few tears out of me."
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Pairing Paddling with Paintbrush: Art on the Fringe With Sean Yoro
Bob Parker Fine Metal Art Homepage