Frank’s Crazy Critters are real proof that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
A bucket of rusty bolts, a worn out saw blade or an old garden rake is enough to spur Frank Parsonage’s creativity.
He flinches a little when asked if he is a folk artist because it is not a term he has ever used to describe himself. He says he’s “just a guy who makes stuff” but admits he is unschooled in art and his creations reflect a working class background where ingenuity often served better than any tool in a limited tool box.
“If that is what makes you a folk artist I guess I might be considered one, but it's not how I think of it,” he said.
If that is what makes you a folk artist I guess I might be considered one, but it's not how I think of it.
A resident of Lovat, Parsonage spent the past summer working in the blacksmith’s shop at Hector Heritage Quay with Frank’s Crazy Critters displayed in the reception area and the shop.
“I get some work done here but I also spend a lot of time talking to people who are really interested in everything that is here and they’ll get around to asking what I’m doing,” he said.
Over the course of the summer he is amazed to have chatted with visitors from Germany, Spain, France, many American states and across Canada.
“Before this summer I’d never spent any time at the Ship Hector so it has been quite a surprise to me to see how much goes on here and how far people come to see what’s here.”
Parsonage’s father had an auto repair shop in Westville while he was growing up.
“I spent a lot of time there and it was in the days when you didn’t throw out things if there was any way of getting them to work. If we didn’t have the right tool we had to fashion something that would work.”
I’m fascinated by what people see in them.
He suspects that is where he first tested his creativity.
“When there were extra parts or pieces lying around I’d just tinker with them. “
Parsonage was a welder at Trenton Works and he later travelled across Canada working as a high-pressure welder.
“As you get older your eyes are not as sharp and that’s an issue in high-pressure welding, but making these critters is much more hobby than occupation.”
He refers to his creations as critters because he believes the viewer has the final say.
“I make a lot of birds, for example, but what I call a crane might not be a crane to somebody else. You might recognize it as another kind of bird or you might even think it is something else. I’m fascinated by what people see in them.”
A selection of birds outside the blacksmith shop are pieced together from worn tools and stray parts he collected at yard sales or more lately, received as donations.
“One is made from a regular shovel, another from a coal shovel. Another part might be a leaf rake or a garden rake. I might use an old reamer for the head. I might use pieces of an old harrow for the wings and collector spoons for feathers. The legs might be spikes or pipe or something else.”
An over-sized spider has spikes for legs, ball bearings for eyes and a trailer hitch ball for its head.
At the moment he is part way through creating a man playing a banjo.
“He started out to be a robot, but after I had a break and looked at him again I knew he was never going to be a robot. I’d come across a masonry saw blade with only four teeth and I thought it looked like a banjo so I reworked his arms to have him hold it. His head is a cap off a welding tank and his body is a coil from a car but I’m not happy with his legs so he is still a work in progress.”
Another unfinished project is a five-foot-tall saxophone player.
“My wife’s cousin was a sax player and he passed away, so that was my inspiration. I’m still working on that piece, trying to keep to a motorcycle theme. I’m not sure what I’ll ever do with it.”
All Parsonage’s metal critters are painted with a flat black paint.
“I expect most of them to end up in a garden or outdoor setting and the paint will hold the rust off for a while. Just recently, I’ve seen people paint them over again in bright colours which I never thought of and they look really amazing.”
He was surprised to learn some buyers keep their pieces inside rather than outdoors.
A widow clearing away her late husband’s garden tools brought him a selection to see what he could make from them.
“She couldn’t keep them all, but she wanted something made as a memorial of him. I thought it was a great idea so I played around with what she brought me until I came up with something she was happy with for their garden.”
I’d probably get bored if I was making the same dog over and over
Through the years he has learned he likes to have a lot of leeway with his creations.
“When somebody asks me for something very specific that can turn into work rather than a hobby unless I’m really excited about it.”
He spent two years on a custom piece for long distance runner Bill MacEachern.
“I had to think a lot about that one and it involved a lot of stops and starts but it was interesting because it was so different. His wife wanted something he’d appreciate and it took me quite a while, but it worked out okay. I even used an old headlight from my tractor in that one.”
Parsonage doubts he has ever made the same piece more than once, although his mother once requested a replica of a piece that went to England.
“The issue is I’m using whatever is at hand and that’s a lot of different stuff. I’m not building the pieces I use so it is darned near impossible to make the same thing twice and that is OK with me. I’d probably get bored if I was making the same dog over and over.”
Since he started working at the quay he has had many people donate materials.
“Many of us were raised to believe you don’t waste anything so they give me things that would otherwise be thrown out.”
Darlene MacDonald of the Ship Hector Society which operates the quay said they were looking for someone to operate the forge on site for a while.
“We were looking for someone to do blacksmith demonstrations but hadn’t had any luck. Then we saw Frank’s creations and offered him space to work and sell his creations.”
Pointing out the quay is operated entirely by volunteers, she added the fact that Parsonage likes to engage with visitors has been an added bonus.
“Someone who was in and stopped to talk with him is a blacksmith and will now be volunteering on site, as well.”
Parsonage said he used to go to a number of area markets, as much for the conversation as the sales.
“Since I’ve been at the quay I’ve talked to so many people I haven’t felt the same need to get to the markets. If they’ll have me back for another season, I’d love to be here.”
Rosalie MacEachern is a Stellarton resident and freelance writer. She seeks out people who work behind the scenes on hobbies or jobs that they love the most. If you know someone you think she should profile in an upcoming article, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org