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Any project is possible: local man specializes in museum needs

NEW GLASGOW – Todd Vassallo does the work no one else can, or wants, to do.

Todd Vassallo installs the windows in an aquarium he’s building for the Museum of Nova Scotia. Vassallo, who lives in New Glasgow, is known in the museum community for his work in fabrication with multiple materials. AMANDA JESS – THE NEWS

The New Glasgow man, who specializes in fabrication for museums and other displays, believes any project is possible, and is more than ready to attempt something he’s never done before.

“By the time they come to me, they’ve already been told it can’t be done,” the owner-operator of Project Works said in a recent interview, referring to his work as “problem solving.”

Even if his name doesn’t sound familiar, you’ve likely seen his work if you’ve been to a museum in the province.

His current project is a tide tank – an aquarium for the Nova Scotia Museum – that will cut down on the amount of work the museum’s chillers need to do in the summer, and stop condensation from building up.

Though only relying on word of mouth to gather commissions, Vassallo has no trouble keeping busy, reeling in project after project that he builds out of his studio on the west side, working mostly in isolation with the exception of a handful of people he calls upon for help, depending on the size of a piece.

Most of his work comes from outside the county.

He, and Creative Pictou County founding chair Denise Lynch, want to see other artists in the other area sought out in a similar fashion, hoping to build the recognition that people in Pictou County have many crafts to offer.

Before moving to the area two decades ago, Vassallo grew up on a dairy farm just outside Sydney in Cape Breton, and expected farming to be his career path, considering his love for physical labour.

When he was 17, he ended up taking a commercial art course at the former Cape Breton Regional Vocational School, a perfect fit for anyone who knew they weren’t destined to be an academic, he said.

He had wanted to learn how to weld in order to find work.

His teacher knew the director at the Nova Scotia Museum, helping him to land an interview and get the job he didn’t know he wanted.

“I had never been in a museum before I worked there.”

By 19, he was learning about taxidermy, woodworking, and metal fabrication, to name a few talents, while getting paid.

For 17 years, he worked as an exhibit technician, building displays.

One that stands out for him is a Sable Island travelling exhibit he created in the 1990s, which was taken across the country, teaching people about the ecology of the national park, giving him a chance to learn about the island off the coast of Halifax at a time when he knew very little about it.

“I’ve spent my life learning everything I possibly could and I can’t stop.”

He recently created a Sable Island horse skeleton for the Museum of Natural History’s permanent exhibit, which rotates in front of a window mural of the wild animal.

He was transferred to Pictou County when the Museum of Industry was opening, and never left.

He eventually took on a side business, creating commissions, while also working in Halifax after finishing his work at the Stellarton museum, commuting each day for four years.

It became his full-time gig, after he found himself spending too much time behind a desk.

Vassallo doesn’t advertise, a technique he’s had no trouble with as the museum community is fairly small, he said.

Last year, he had a quiet summer and fall, prompting him to take a welding inspection and quality control community college course, but once December hit, he became too busy to finish it, starting off a steady few seasons with a mount for a Silver Dart replica, the airplane Alexander Graham Bell helped to design that took the first powered Canadian flight, for the Alexander Graham Bell historic site in Baddeck.  

A lot of his work involves building mounts for artifacts, something he loves to do because it gives him a chance to handle pieces of history that most people wouldn’t get to touch.

There’s no shortage of stress in his field, with most pieces leaving no room for mistakes, but he’s never been too scared to tackle something, figuring that he’s unlikely to get judged negatively for what he produces if no one else is even willing to give it a try.

On Twitter: @NGNewsAmanda

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