Richard “JR” Pelletier doesn’t think like the rest of us.

When he looks at a pile of door knobs he sees eyes staring back. Forks, knives and spoons become spines, arms and claws. Shovels and rakes? Oh, baby. The sky is the limit.

Everywhere JR looks, he sees art. And every single piece of it – the coat hooks, carriage wheels, tea kettles, meat thermometers, rat-chewed basket lids – has a story to tell.

“I’m always looking at objects as to what they could be,” JR says, “rather than what they were meant to be. It’s like the parts talk to me.”

It wasn’t always that way. Until 2012, the beautiful creations to come existed only in JR’s restless mind. They hadn’t yet escaped into the physical world.

What happened in 2012?

“I found a couple old rakes with no handles,” JR says, “and I thought, ‘Ah. These look like spines.'”

He found a rusted spade and thought, “This looks like the head of a fish.”

On so it began. JR started piecing those random items together and the result was order out of chaos.

“He started out very simply,” says JR’s daughter, Audrey. “Just shovels and rakes. But over time it got more intricate. More detailed.”

Audrey looks around the Sabattus home she shares with her father. “And bigger. Everything got bigger.”

The artwork that crawled, rolled or slithered out of JR’s imagination – nearly 50 pieces so far – could fairly be described as both beautiful and grotesque. These are fantastic figures so unique and compelling that at least one random stranger has offered JR $500 for a single piece.

Something old, something new

Just about every room inside his Sabattus home is populated by bug-eyed beings and things on springs. They gleam from every corner — some comical and leering, others somber and stately. Every piece is a relative infant, having sprung only recently from JR’s mind. But JR, a former welder and substance abuse counselor, is quick to remind a visitor that there is history here, too.

There’s the piece he calls “Gold Rush,” for instance: an impressive design fashioned out of a 1890’s Roller Skate, a butter dish and a baby’s shoe, among other things.

“Look at the baby shoe. Not just one kid wore that,” JR says, with unmasked excitement about the fact. “You can tell that many kids wore it over the years. 

“Each of my creations represents hundreds, if not thousands of years of history,” he says, “such as: Who saw the need for it and designed it? Who manufactured it? Who owned it? And not to mention the energy and force needed to make and use it. I’m certain there are also many stories behind many of the pieces used, like the pride of ownership and the generations it was passed to, the well-worn roller skates, the large block planes used by carpenters and the gravy bowls that were used in many holiday meals.”

JR will describe a particular piece right down to the finest screw and then he’ll apologize for talking so much. The experience of being an artist is new to him. He doesn’t yet know where his art will take him or how he’s supposed to conduct himself.

Then he starts talking about his pieces again and all reservation leaves him.

Here is “Ernie’s Auto Plane,” a rather intricate piece constructed of a block plane, a slightly gnawed picnic basket lid, coat hooks, a toilet paper holder, a napkin holder, a candle holder and a tractor fuel gauge that serves as eyeglasses for a tiny wolf sitting inside an airplane.

Why is there a tiny wolf sitting inside Ernie’s Auto Plane?

“He’s going to court,” JR explains, “because he was chasing pigs.”

What about the gleaming piece of metal next to the wolf?

“The wolf was really scared of flying,” JR says, “so the hens gave him this St. Christopher’s metal to make him feel better.”

In “The Honeymoon,” a cat and goose sit side by side in a bowling shoe on wheels, a pair of suit cases behind them. Each animal figurine came from some far-flung place, but somehow they look like they belong together.

“They’re in love,” JR says, and it’s easy to believe it.

He’s got a piece that’s dedicated to former talk show host Jay Leno, with each component representing a different part of Leno’s life. All of JR’s creations come with not just one story but several. Some are fairy tales meant to bring his artwork to life. Others are prosaic real-life tales that explain how a particular piece came into being.

“I was taking a whiz in back of some guy’s barn,” JR says of one piece. “I looked down and I saw this piece of rust. I thought, I see a falcon head in there.”

The Brothers Grimm have nothing on this guy.

Most of the stories reside in JR’s head. Some he’s started to write down at the behest of his daughter – she encourages her dad to try to be more organized about things.

“I really do need to get these stories out,” JR says. “In case I get hit by a bus or something.”

A place for everything and everything in its place

If JR’s imagination comes with its own warehouse, that warehouse can be found in the basement of his home. It’s a well-lit and orderly place that nonetheless looks like a yard sale collided with a flea market and then skidded into a kitchen store.

This is a place where ordinary things like scissors, wire, brackets, knobs, door handles, bicycle parts, sprockets, shoe horns, hammer heads and frying pans are transformed into more grandiose things in the mind – not to mention the hands – of JR Pelletier.

“These are all people,” JR says, breezing by an area where scissors and tongs hang on racks.

“These are eyes,” he says of the various knobs.

“These are dog parts, those are gills and these over here are smiles just waiting for a face.”

To a casual observer, JR’s basement might look like chaos. To the artist himself, it’s an exceedingly organized place, with thousands of parts hanging on metal frames rather than at the bottom of boxes where he wouldn’t be able to gaze upon them.

“What has been very helpful for me is separating my parts as I collect them,” He explains. “I place brass pieces in one section, white metals in another section and so on. I also try to keep same-colored pieces separate. This way I can work on blending parts together while I can start working on a plan as to what I can build with it, while working on a different piece. I find it very exciting when parts just sort of fall in place.

“While I have a large cellar,” JR continues, “my actual work space measures four by six feet. The work area I create my art on is a piece of 11-gauge steel plate measuring 6 inches by 16 inches. My tools are minimal, which include a small hand drill, band saw, drill press and swivel vise. I also use a variety of hand tools including about 10 pairs of pliers, screw drivers, hammers, files, drill bits, taps and dies. All my tools hang to my right and left sides on Pegboard.”

Time to leave the nest?

JR isn’t sure what to do next. He’ll keep creating, certainly, but he only has so much space inside his home. Perhaps he’ll have a show and try to unload some of his pieces, if only to clear room for the newest creations.

It won’t be easy, though. As he talks about each of his 48 existing pieces, one senses an unquestionable fondness for them in JR. That fondness is illustrated by a particular piece called “The First Date,” which features a pair of romantically inclined geese setting off in a gleaming roller skate car.

When JR finished the piece, he carted it down to Cumberland Farms to show a clerk who had previously expressed admiration for his work. While he was there, JR was approached by a stranger who had become instantly enamored of the piece.

“He told me, ‘I was going out to buy a sit-down lawn mower today, but I’d rather have that,'” JR recalls. “He offered me $500 for it.”

JR declined the offer. “The First Date” still resides in his home. While he does display his artwork at Owl’s Head Transportation Museum, he hasn’t taken the next steps – a Facebook page, a website, public shows – toward turning his creations into profit.

Is it time? Only JR can answer that question. He is planning on creating a web page. And giving more talks. And writing down the stories behind each creation. (See JR’s 10 random thoughts.)

Meanwhile, when he’s not down in his basement, he’s out shopping the flea markets and yard sales in search of further inspiration.

“I have so many plans for future pieces and find myself placing certain parts together on trays on my three bakers racks, in hopes of finding other pieces that might work for a certain project,” JR says. “And when I least expect it, I find a piece while looking for something totally different. It’s almost as if the part grabs my complete attention and forces me to abandon the part I was originally looking for. It happens all the time.”

‘Random thoughts’ from Richard ‘JR’ Pelletier

JR Pelletier offered these thoughts to the Sun Journal following an interview. 

1. I have strong support from family and close friends

2. I plan on enlarging pictures and getting some into nursing homes and hospice houses, in hopes of bringing smiles upon those going thru life struggles.

4. My first showing of completed pieces is held at the Dominican Sisters Home in Sabattus

5. I hope to have a webpage in the near future

6. I very much enjoy talking about my process and will be giving presentations and talks in the near future.

7. I use very simple and ordinary words…..I believe I am a very simple person.

8. I truly believe that every area of my life has been planned and all my problems, hopes and dreams have been filtered through the hands of God before reaching me.

Want to contact the artist? Buy a piece? Donate an item? Write to JR Pelletier at [email protected]

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