By Cathy Pelletier
Back when he was a mechanic, Willie MacLeod never looked at ordinary butter knives and saw the spirit of a three-foot tall eagle lurking within the silverware; not once.
“Never in a million years” did he imagine he’d create a humongous horse’s head for an equestrian’s wedding gift, or mount “a big gnarly-looking vulture” onto the handlebars of a Harley motorcycle, said the soft-spoken 60-year-old sculptor.
But that was before. 26 years ago, to be exact, before a freak diving accident in a swimming pool damaged his spinal cord, sentencing him to life in a wheelchair and unleashing the insatiable welding artist within.
Suddenly, he began seeing things differently – envisioning an enormous toad emerging from a Kawasaki motorcycle gas tank; the circular core of a spider calling him from a bowling ball; the “perfect perch” for an eagle among an assortment of rusted old tools and tractor parts.
“They say you need a good imagination and a huge pile of junk,” maintained MacLeod with a smile. “People love recognizing the parts and pieces of things. It’s really cool to see the looks on people’s faces when they walk by (his sculptures) and say, ‘Wow, that’s a damn bowling ball’!”
Having lost most of the use of his left hand — except the thumb — and significant dexterity in the right, he said he still has “strong arms,” though now they’re covered with scars from years of welding art.
“I’ve been burned so many times; I started on fire one time,” the quadriplegic said matter-of-factly, adding he has no feeling from the upper chest down. “I smell it burning before I feel it.”
Burns and scars aside, MacLeod’s boundless enthusiasm to create forges on unabated. Assisted by his wife, Bonnie; his faithful dogs Molly and Smudge at his side, he’s currently transforming a tractor light, old bicycle chains and wrought iron stand into a “funky” dancing angel, and a flame-thrower (“the kind they use to prevent forest fires by starting forest fires”) into a helicopter, all while completing his near-road-worthy dune buggy.
“There’s a whole bunch of stuff in my head I haven’t even started yet. I wake up at seven in the morning and come out in my garage,” he explained, where a female mannequin —dressed in a Spider Man mask and red dress — peeks from piles of potential masterpieces. Here, his “creative therapy” commences.
Salvaging bits and pieces from scrap yards, “It’s amazing what people throw out,” MacLeod said.
For years he was a woodworker, but “blames” his sister, Judy, for biting him with the welding bug. It all began when “she welded a chicken,” which now sits among his garden sculpture creations, “and we started welding together. I started with whimsical stuff and things got more elaborate as I went along.”
Bonnie’s backyard eagle, for example, has about “100 hours into it and about 400 knives,” not to mention its nest, which contains a jumble of everything from old tools to typewriter keys.
“The neighbours are always coming over to see what’s going on and I put them to work. A lot of times I come home and find stuff in the driveway.”
Not only scrap yard owners but friends and sometimes even strangers save cylinders, barbecue parts; anything they feel might fuel MacLeod’s artistry. Recently, someone brought him a broken wrought iron chair. “The first thing I saw was the lion’s feet” in the chair legs, he explained.
Among his other garden sculptures, a gargoyle crouches atop a trampoline’s legs, welded to an old hot water tank. A caterpillar welded out of snooker balls slithers on oversized leaves carved from barn shingles; a gigantic empty bird cage sits waiting for a phantom crow.
“I don’t think I’m going to live long enough to do all the things I want to do,” he chuckled. “The list is getting longer.”
MacLeod said he’s accustomed to living life on two wheels. Armed with a garage full of inspiration, he claims, “As long as you’re busy, you can’t dwell on it. I used to do public speaking to guys fresh in a wheelchair to help them out.” He also warned high school students of the perils of unsafe diving; surprised whenever teens were so touched by his speech that they hugged him.
“Again, never in a million years did I think I’d ever do public speaking. But if you can save one person’s tragedy, it’s a good thing.”
He recently returned from whitewater rafting in Ottawa (“They think I’m the first quadriplegic who did it in Canada”), and thinks, “I might do parasailing.”
Meanwhile, MacLeod’s one-of-a-kind creations have found safe haven in Something Else, a downtown Port Colborne store that features unique art, clothing and home décor, as well as several items that were once “something else.” On the corner of Clarence St. and West St. , founder/owner Gail Todd sells artsy “upcycled” jewellery crafted from antique silverware, cell phone cases sewn from recycled saari silk, benches constructed from barnboard, cigar box purses, vintage button bracelets, and a host of other creative surprises.
MacLeod and Todd have become friends; her store is the only place he’s interested in showcasing his artwork.
Now in her fifth year, Todd said the item she most enjoyed having in her store was his horse’s head. “People still talk about it,” she said.
Tourists from around the world stop in at Something Else while sightseeing along the canal, frequently leaving comments in her guest book about the “cool” canalside shop. Todd, a former local newspaper publisher, enjoys nurturing talented artists by lending them store space as well as boosting their confidence through sales.
From May until Thanksgiving, the lift bridge-adjacent block of Clarence St. is filled with classic cars Thursday nights, inviting visitors to explore Port Colborne’s diverse downtown shops and ethnic restaurants. The car show also features live music and runs each week until dark.
Something Else can be found on Facebook. Call 289-836-9893 for more information.