Driving east down the wide Ottawa River valley, heading away from the setting sun, Randy and I soon find ourselves running out of urban sprawl. The township road rolling due east out of Navan for about eight kilometers begins a series of wide sweeping curves through tall phalanxes of ethanol-bound corn glowing green and gold in the low sun of a summer evening. This is serious farm country, with perhaps the odd welding business, the odd quarry, but mostly the endless stands of maize, carpets of soya bean and motionless milk cattle scattered like pebbles over a stony meadow too rocky to plant.
The farther east we drive, the more francophone the mailboxes get – Cleroux, Laplante, Sauvé, the occasional Tremblay. Slowing down now to read the municipal addresses out by the road, Randy and I start to count off the numbers until we crest a slight rise and come down the backside. “This has to be it.” says long-time friend Randy Stille. I cross the road into the oncoming lane to let a tailgater pass and turn left onto a shaded lane of gravel and dust. The drive leads down an incline from the highway to a small farmhouse and a complex of sheds. The road also leads me to the conclusion that you never know what lies at the end of any road. This road leads to Art MacDonald.
Not really sure we are at the right place, we come to rest on a patch of rutted and dried earth with a small but well kept farmhouse embedded in shaded trees on our left and a large barn to our right. The sun is lowering on the horizon as we open the creaking doors of my old Volkswagen. Standing up, I look at Randy with a look that asks – “Are we at the right place?”
The solid plywood door to the shed is pushed open and a tall, older man steps outside and greets us with a welcoming smile and proffers us his a big, well worn hand. This is Art MacDonald, folk artist, and one very busy man. Randy had seen examples of his unique work while visiting the home of Art's daughter – beautifully crafted folk art weather vanes made from bent, folded, crimped, polished, riveted and painted sheet metal. Each piece was a weathercocking replica of one of the great aircraft of all time. There were Harvards, Lancasters, Spitfires, Sopwiths, Fokkers, Beavers, Mosquitos, Expeditors – you name it, Art had made it.
The walls of Art MacDonald's workshop are lined with shelves holding scores of brightly coloured aircraft weather vane sculptures and whirligigs. Most are modelled on real aircraft such as the yellow Harvard and Fairey Firefly on the lower shelve (above), while others are his own designs such as the whimsical biplanes on the upper shelf. I saw Wellingtons, Avengers, Mooneys, Dakota. Corsairs, SE-5s... you name it.
Art MacDonald is a wizard with metal, turning sheets of heavy gauge metal and rivets into aeronautical and meteorological works of both accurate detail and whimsical fancy. Art is a true folk artist and like every folk artist, he denies he is such. “I just do this to keep me busy.” says MacDonald, “If it wasn't for this, I wouldn't have anything to do, probably just fade away.” He comes by his remarkable skill with metal naturally after a lifetime working as an aircraft rigger and heating and ventilating fabricator.
Born in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, near Sullivan's Pond, MacDonald's first real job after high school was as an on-the-job trained aircraft rigger for Fairey Aviation across the Shearwater airfield at Eastern Passage. Riggers were aircraft maintainers that worked only on the airframes themselves and not on engine repair. Aircraft serviced by Fairey were simply towed there across the road from the big Shearwater naval air base. MacDonald worked at Fairey for two years during which he helped with the conversion and repair of RCN Seafires. He recalls ruefully the time when 18 Seafires, just retired from service, were set aflame, just for the practice of putting the fire out, such was their perceived worth. Later, Art also worked as an aircraft rigger for Orville Pulsiver of Atlantic Aviation working at their float plane operation on Lake Waverly, Nova Scotia. In 1951, while working with Atlantic Art soloed in a J-3 Cub and soon received his private pilot's license.
After a career in Nova Scotia as both and aircraft rigger and a heating and ventilating metal fabricator, Art moved to the Ottawa Valley. He worked in many aspects of aviation around the Embun, Ontario area. He was part owner of the Embrun Airport and its general manager for some time. As well, Art also worked on aircraft maintenance for Johnny May's Air Charter, flying throughout the north of Ontario and Quebec. Though now in Ontario, he continued doing airframe work in Nova Scotia with Airmac Flight Co. at Port Hawksbury. His love of aviation made him the owner of a series of classic aircraft such as the Erco Ercoupe, Piper J-3 Cub, Piper PA-11 Cub Special, Piper PA-12 Super Cruiser and Beech 18 Expeditor. The Expeditor airframe was eventually donated to a museum in Quebec.
Art MacDonald is also a family man. He has 7 children, 16 grandchildren and 4 great grandchildren. After retirement, he combined his love for his grandchildren with his love for sheet metal work, creating hand crafted metal toy trucks and aircraft as gifts for his family. It soon became an obsession as he created more and more detailed toys and eventually weather vanes of exceptional quality.
Each of Art's meticulously crafted weather vanes starts with research into the shape and proportion of the aircraft to be built. He then creates cardboard templates from recycled cereal boxes – a task that takes a trained eye and an understanding of how the metal will eventually be formed and connected. He also creates metal jigs or forms around which he bends the final cut metal components. What appears to be week's worth of work actually takes the gifted and experienced metal smith about 20 hours on average for each of his aircraft weather vanes.This does not include doing the research and making the templates and jigs. Considering the amazing detail, quality workmanship and the custom paint schemes he is willing to do for each customer, the cost to create each is amazingly affordable. Depending on the complexity, the vanes range in price from $80.00 to $200.00. And Art is never short of orders for his artwork. He has weather vanes spinning in the prevailing winds from Calgary to the Netherlands, and from Virginia to Windsor. Anyone wishing to contact Art regarding a commission, should contact Dave O'Malley (firstname.lastname@example.org) to get in touch with the artist.