Danny Perkins and the art of steel
The new gates at the Richmond Fair Grounds were seen by approximately 10 000 people this year. The estimate comes from Maureen Murphy, the Fair’s secretary-treasurer. “Everyone had something positive to say about them,” Maureen states. “The three sets of gates that Danny made for us are a real embellishment. He’s a very artistic young man.”
Danny Perkins, who constructed the steel gates, acknowledges that his work has been well received. However, he’s quick to state that, much as he might enjoy using his drawing skills on 14guage sheet metal, his day job is firmly on his family’s farm in Kingsey Falls. (With his mother and father, he milks about 65 head of Jersey cows twice a day.)
“Art was my favourite subject in school,” Danny Perkins says, adding that his mother and sister are also quite artistic. “But what I studied after high school was bricklaying. I wanted to have some sort of trade to fall back on.”
For a while, Danny worked in construction, on different sites around the Townships. The work was seasonal and this led Danny to learn welding “One winter, when I was laid off, as part of my benefits, I was offered a 250-hour welding course. It made sense to me to take it.”
Even though he was working in construction, Danny continued to contribute to the family farm on weekends and when he could. After a few years of bricklaying, he opted to abandon construction work in favour of farm work.
It was seven or eight years ago that Danny’s artistic inclination and his mastery of welding first came together. “My first piece of metal artwork was a sign for the farm,” he explains, “It shows a rooster standing on the back of a cow with ‘Perkins Farm’ written underneath.”
However, it took several years, until 2016, for Danny to again start creating in metal. This time, it was something quite practical. “I made a hay cart,” he says. “It’s a small, hand-pushed cart that measures roughly five feet by two feet by two feet. It’s used at fair time to bring hay to the cattle you’re showing. Most often farmers use plastic carts of the same size.”
If Danny’s cart was similar to the plastic ones, it nevertheless had an artistic touch that made it unique. After constructing the cart, Danny took a few photos of it and posted these on Facebook. The result was that almost two dozen farmers, from near-by North Hatley to Texas and Oklahoma, have contacted him to commission similar personalized hay carts.
That Danny should build gates for Richmond Fair is more than fitting. He can trace his family back to an early ancestor who first started tilling Townships’ soil more than 200 years ago. Danny is a sixth generation farmer. The family’s connection to Richmond Fair goes back more than 150 years. Currently, Danny’s father, Avery Perkins, is one of the directors of the Fair.
When Danny got the idea to offer to build three sets of metal gates for Richmond Fair, he was able to begin his proposal, “Dad, I’ve got an idea.”
“I volunteered my labour,” Danny says, “and the Fair covered the materials and other incidental costs. For example, I don’t have the tools to bend tubular frames, so that had to be contracted out. Similarly, the powder finish applied to the gates was also done by someone else.”
Still, what the young Jersey farmer did was quite remarkable, especially given his working conditions. “I work in the garage,” he says. “I don’t have a workshop or an atelier or anything like that. I have several sawhorses and I use those to support the steel sheets as I work on them. It’s a simple set up but it works.”
Nor are Danny’s artist’s hours the best. “The Richmond Fair gates took about 600 hours of work. I started working on them in March and they were installed on September 2, just five days before the Fair opened. Because I was doing this in my spare time, I ended up keeping erratic hours. I’d go out to the garage at eight o’clock and I’d get lost in my work and when I checked the time, I’d see that it was three in the morning. That didn’t happen every evening, but it did happen a couple of times a week.”
Still, he was always ready for his day job at 6:00 a.m.
The gates are big. Four of them measure 10 feet tall and the other two measure nine feet tall. In terms of length, two measure 19 feet each, two 14 feet each, and the last two nine feet each.
Across the top of each gate are the words, “Expo Richmond” or “Richmond Fair.” Underneath the lettering are scenes depicting various elements of farm life from butterflies to tractors. These are rendered like silhouettes, but instead of black ink on white paper, they are dark-painted steel against the background of the fair grounds and the hills beyond.
“The first task for every scene was welding,” Danny explains, “The steel I was using was 14 gauge which means it would measure between one sixteenth and one eighth of an inch in thickness. It comes in eight foot by four foot sheets, like plywood, and I had to cut and weld sheets to get the required size for each gate.”
“Then,” he continues, “using a crayon specially made for metal, I would draw the scenes. They’re all different and in each one there are as many different aspects of the Fair as I could squeeze in, including the midway. Once I was happy with the drawing, I started cutting out the metal leaving the silhouettes.”
The cutting was done using a plasma cutter that runs on electricity and air the same way that a torch runs on propane and oxygen. As long as the cutting process is the buffing that has to follow. “If I spend two hours cutting,” Danny says with a wry smile, “I know I’m going to be spending two hours buffing. I used well over $1000 on buffing wheels to finish the gates.”
While Danny Perkins donated his time, the Fair Board disbursed some $10 000 to cover the different costs associated with the project, from the steel sheets that served as artist’s materials to the final coat of protective paint.
The Richmond Fair gates are something of a large, public work for the young metal artist, but for the last two years he has also been creating lots of other decorative pieces in metal, much smaller in scale, and well suited to adorn a wall, just as an oil painting might.
His work attracted a lot of attention and buyers at the craft fair held at Richmond Regional High School at the end of September. “I sold quite a few pieces,” he admits, “and I was approached by one person who asked if I’d be interested in participating at the Montreal Craft Show. I was interested until I learned that the show runs for 10 days. It’s hard to be away from the farm for that long.”
Still, he’s shown his work at craft fairs in Sherbrooke and in Drummondville.
“Right now,” he says, “I’m trying to fill in application forms for art symposiums in Quebec City and Danville. They’re difficult to fill out. I can show somebody what I create, but what I do is difficult to put a name to.”
For the time being, the art form that Danny Perkins practices, will have to make do with adjectives: beautiful, lovely, attractive, charming.