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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.”

While he was in his car phase, he made dozens of them, including a 1905 Daimler-Benz tourer and a 1963 Corvair, in honor of his favorite car of all time. He also made a WW I Sopwith Camel and a replica of the Newport trolley he remembers riding when he was growing up.

He gave a lot of them away, but even so, he had 22 cars and airplanes around the house. “I didn’t know where to put them anymore.” The problem was easily solved when the Preservation Society of Newport County asked if it could have them to put on display at Green Animals, the historic house and gardens of philanthropist Alice Brayton. And so he donated them all to the historic site, which is just around the corner from his house. “But that left me without anything. I had to start something new.”

The village began with just one house. Bill was 18 when he fought in World War II as an infantryman in France and Germany. Later, he was sent to Vienna. The ornate architecture of the buildings there captivated him. “Those opera houses, man they were something,” he says now. Maybe he was thinking back to those buildings when he started the house that started the village. It’s ornate, with frilly trim and an arched front door.

With Frank Sinatra playing gently in the background, Bill spent night after night in his basement making the shingles for the roof, cutting and folding, and scoring the pattern into each fingernail-size shingle. “So then I’d get them done and I’d be all thrilled. Then it was time to shingle the roof, so I’d do that for a week or more.”

And so went the evenings, the weeks, and the years — one shingle, one door latch, one fence post at a time. Peer inside the tiny windows and you’ll see the furnishings, complete with fancy fireplaces, a grandfather’s clock the size of a child’s finger, and chairs the size of raisins.

“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.”

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