Commonplace objects occupy metalworker's expansive artistry

August 30, 1994|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,Ocean City Bureau of The Sun

West Ocean City --- His hands are calloused from years of metal work, blunted and blackened by handling the big sheets of aluminum and galvanized steel.

Skip Johnston is an artist in an unlikely studio and an unlikely medium. His workshop is the business he runs called Metal Magic.

And the magic is there, in the dark, cool work space behind the Steamer Restaurant. It twinkles in the unexpected beauty of curly metal shavings on the floor, a quicksilver presence in and around the restaurant stove hoods and the firetruck bumpers and the boat engine mounts that pay the bills.

"I never have been the kind of person to just sit around. I get a

whim to do something, I do it," Mr. Johnston says offhandedly.

His most recent whims include the world's largest fishing hook (now installed at the White Marlin Marina), Ake Marine's mailbox in the shape of a fishing reel and -- this winter's project -- two 25-foot golf clubs.

But don't call him an artist; he'll disagree.

"I don't think that I really have that much talent," he says. "I just make it. I think people who can do stuff hand-eye, they don't measure it, they just look. . . . that person has more than money."

Like who?

Duck carvers. Painters. People like that, he says.

Sounds convincing. Until you see his work: The smooth, polished curve of the fish hook, at the White Marlin Marina, a silver shaft reaching for the sun. Or the mailbox at Ake Marine, a larger-than-life fishing reel, complete with rope wrapped around the center, all curves and wheels.

What he dismissively calls a "whim" is his creativity, a force that expresses itself in metal, in hours of work on oversized versions of familiar objects that assume a dimension that isn't just a matter of scale.

Art? Maybe. Artistry? Without a doubt.

Mr. Johnston, 49, grew up in Brentwood, Md., and worked in the Washington area before coming to Ocean City eight years ago.

"My father was a metalworker. I worked with him in the summertime. When I went for my interview for my apprenticeship in 1965, there was a guy on the committee from D&M Metal in Bladensburg." That man hired Mr. Johnston, and his education continued on the job.

"Every person in that shop was a teacher.

The cutters, the welders -- I worked with the teachers all day long. They taught at the sheetworkers' local."

What made him decide to venture beyond stove hoods and firetruck fronts?

"I raised a lot of kids -- mine, hers and ours!" he says. "I always needed extra money." So he'd do little sculptures -- "fish, nails, anything" -- and his wife sold them in the bar where she worked. "I'd make one in the morning, one at lunch and one after work. Forty dollars, 60 dollars -- it adds up."

Then there was the postal worker with foot trouble who came to Mr. Johnston for help in the mid-1970s. The post office required him to wear steel-toed shoes and he couldn't find any to fit his post-operation feet.

"This guy had bandages all over his feet and he said, 'Can you make me a pair of shoes?' " Mr. Johnston recalls. So he did. All metal, except the soles. They were wood.

"I made them out of a gray metal called Galvaneel . . . I just looked at his feet and measured them. He'd put the shoe on and say, 'It's tight back here' and I'd stretch it. I probably charged him $40 . . ."

And the Georgetown Park mall, at M and Wisconsin -- Mr. Johnston did all the metal work, railings, escalator rails, decorative panels. The pictures of him standing by his elaborate railings, wearing Levi's and a jean jacket and 1970s long hair, hang in his office.

His wife is in the office, too, filling out sweepstakes cards. She enters thousands of contests every year.

"I've won a truck, five or six trips to Florida, Texas, the Super Bowl, the Bahamas," says Ann Johnston. "I'm going to win a trip to Hawaii."

She wins all the time, the results of plenty of entries and extra-heavy envelopes that feel different and inviting to the hand of someone drawing for a winner, she explains. And indeed, this day's mail brings a tape she won from Teen Beat magazine -- and four cartons of envelopes she's ordered for her entries.

That explains Mr. Johnston's next project, the one after this winter's golf clubs.

"I want to make myself a mailbox," he says.

:. "I'm thinking I'll build a Tin Man. . . ."

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