'There are other fish out there, but none of it looks like this'
ASTORIA, Ore. - For decades, Vern Wilson worked as a fabricator at shipyards across the Pacific Northwest, not knowing that the craft he was perfecting would someday lead him down a very different path.
Oh sure, he tinkered around in his shop after work and transformed pieces of dull, gray steel into works of beauty. But that was just a hobby.
"I started out just doing it for myself and the family," Vern said. "And people started saying 'hey, do you know what you have here? Maybe you could start selling it.' "
Vern took folks up on the idea and made a pleasant discovery - people really did like what he was making and they were willing to buy it.
So Vern made a business out of it; he even brought in his wife and son to help out. Today, his artwork can be found up and down the Oregon coast at restaurants, bars, hotels and many other places.
Vern is now 69 years old and no longer builds ships. He retired five years ago and has since thrown himself into his metal artwork. He and his son, 26-year-old Matthew Wilson, now spend their days in the shop at their home just outside of Astoria.
"I can't wait to get in my shop in the morning," said Vern. And his son, who has been working with his father in the shop since he was 14 years old, is never far behind.
The two spend countless hours cutting the steel with torches, pounding out the shapes on an old blacksmith anvil, polishing the steel with grinders and sanders and applying the color. And then mom, Ruth, comes in and puts on the clear coat.
The Wilsons talk freely about their process but are careful to leave certain things out to preserve some of their trade secrets.
"You know, some of those things I really don't like to give out because there are people out there kind of copying me," Vern said. "And I've got two words for them - good luck."
"We don't really tell people exactly how we do it," said Matthew, who spends most of his time creating the smaller magnets that are popular sellers.
The father and son take great pride in what they create.
"Some artwork is made by machines - nobody works on it by hand," said Matthew. "Everything we do is done by hand. We make everything."
"I really and firmly believe that I am one of the first people to use heat and steel because I have so many years of metal fabrication," said Vern. "'
Vern said the family makes a modest amount money from the artwork but certainly not enough to make them well off.
"You've heard the term 'starving artist' - that's about what it is," said Vern. "There are good times and bad times. We've had really good years and we've had some really slow years."
But money is not what it's all about - it's about capturing a fleeting moment.
"I try to make my fish look like what they would look like when they're coming out of the water," said Vern. "You've only got a few minutes to see that color and then it starts to fade. You never get to take a beautiful fish like that home and show it to your friends. Because by the time they see it, it's all faded and it doesn't look the same."
Many consider Vern an artist but that's not exactly what he wants to be known as.
"I don't consider myself an artist," he said. "I consider myself a master craftsman. There's nothing I can't build. If it can be built, I can build it. That's what I'd rather be called because it's what I've spent my whole life doing."