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Artist Creates Pine Timber Fork for Road in His Town

Tue February 15, 2011 - Northeast Edition
Jay Adams

In Pasadena, Calif., a sculptor erected one 14 ft. high out of steel to mark the road and hold food drives.

In San Antonio a restaurant put a 24-footer up, and locals argue whether it is art or an advertisement.

But Tom Schmitt of Westport, Mass., raised his large pine timber fork as a sort of conversation piece, a literal fork in the road at the place of a symbolic fork for travelers.

Like most New Englanders, Tom Schmitt and his wife Kate would send directions to visiting friends and relatives, using the familiar descriptive phrase, “When you come to the fork in the road,” to explain which way to turn.

Getting to their home, involved their own personal “fork” at the intersection of Old Harbor and River Roads. Occasionally, the Schmitts would wonder aloud about that term’s literal interpretation, and from time to time imagined how drivers might react if — upon reaching the intersection — they might actually encounter a large fork.

“I drive past this location, this fork in the road, at least ten times per week,” said the artist. He also had lived for a time in Pasadena, Calif., where he was inspired by the sculptor’s fork near the highway (although it is no longer there.)

Constructing The Fork

Last Spring — during a visit to Delano’s sawmill in Dartmouth, Mass., to pick up lumber for a boat project —Schmitt noticed large pieces of clear pine timber that had been sawed from trees felled near a power line right-of-way. Thinking they might become fork construction material, Schmitt loaded them onto his truck along with the boat lumber.

On the way back to Westport, he began to think about how to fashion a large, reasonable facsimile of a silver table fork. First, he measured the Delano timber to determine how big he could make the fork. Then, using a real fork from the kitchen drawer and a set of dividers, Schmitt figured out measurements to use for the sculpture.

With these dimensions, he sketched the fork design on a piece of scrap paper and later transferred them to the pine timber using a tape measure, straight edge and large Sharpie pen.

“First, I determined how big I wanted to make the fork and then did a detailed drawing, using a real fork as a model,” said Schmitt. “I then determined the angle of the tines, relative to the shank, faired the edges of two timbers where they would be, and then epoxied and bolted them together. After the epoxy set, I removed the bolts, and drew a template of the fork on the timbers.”

Given the fork’s size — about 10 ft. long and weighing more than 100 lbs.— it was too large for most saws.

“I then drilled three holes at the base of the tines and, using a chain saw, roughly cut out the shape of the fork,” he added.

He “sculpted” the remainder using a power planer, gouge, chisel, rasp and sander.

“To finish the piece, I sanded it with 80, 120 and 220 grit paper on a random orbital sander, rolled on several coats of shellac, and when the shellac had dried, I epoxied the entire piece several times,” said Schmitt.

Knowing his creation would have to endure some raw Northeast weather, Schmitt sealed the pine with several layers of epoxy and let it set for a few days.

“I then applied chrome aluminum paint, four coats, using spray cans from a local hardware store,” said Schmitt.

The whole process took about two weeks from inception to finished giant utensil, he added.

Raising The Fork

Just before midnight on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, the couple took the fork to the intersection of Old Harbor and River Roads and lashed it to the stone pier that is located just behind the intersection. The fork attracted immediate attention, so much so, that when it was almost immediately removed by what Schmitt considers a teen prank before the end of the first weekend, (it was ultimately returned, undamaged) many people asked about its whereabouts. They told the Schmitts they were sorry it had disappeared.

“I do not specifically know who removed the form over Memorial Day weekend,” said Schmitt. “I assumed it was a prank because the fork was not damaged in any way and was merely removed for display at another location.”

Community interest over the missing fork prompted Schmitt to ask the Westport River Watershed Alliance (WRWA) about donating the fork to that organization’s annual silent auction — a focal point of that summer gala. He hoped that auction participants would be sufficiently intrigued by the possibility of a large fork lawn ornament that their bidding would result in a gluttonous contribution for the WRWA and its programs.

However, a large number of people who had seen the “fork in the road” over Memorial Day weekend had another idea — buy it and have it re-installed, permanently, at the intersection of Old Harbor and River Roads.

Spearheading that effort, Liz Coxe found nine other like-minded patrons of the arts, who together placed the highest bid and acquired the fork. Their generosity benefited the Westport community in two ways: A WRWA contribution larger than what Schmitt had hoped for, and installation of the fork sculpture at a site where people who live in and visit Westport Harbor can enjoy it each time they drive by.

Enter Mid-City Steel

“That was when I decided we had to secure the fork,” said Schmitt.

The “Fork Folk,” as the ten bidders now refer to themselves, approached Schmitt about coordinating its permanent re-installation, which offered two challenges: Obtaining permission from owner(s) of the property on which the sculpture would sit, and fashioning a secure mounting stanchion for such a large and heavy piece.

Both challenges were overcome. When asked, the property owners quickly granted the couple permission to install the fork and became enthusiastic supporters of the initiative. According to Schmitt, the owners’ encouragement is, “Something for which I will be eternally grateful.”

Mid-City Steel — a longtime Westport business, located on Route 6 between Fall River and New Bedford, Mass., has been helping the community for decades. Lou Gitlin, the owner, serves on many boards and has donated uncountable amounts of materials to projects such as this, usually without any compensation at all.

The company is a full service metal dealer, selling new steel for all types of construction and reconstruction, marine work and other applications. It receives and processes scrap metal and operates an annex where it stock and sell used steel of all sizes and shapes. If you need steel for any purpose, they are the people to see in the Massachusetts/Rhode Island area, according to Schmitt, who said, “That is where I go first.”

“I know Mid-City Steel from having served on the WRWA Board with Lou Gitlin, and so I went to the used steel annex and looked around with [manager] Paul Aguiar,” said Schmitt. “When I told Paul what I needed, the kind of heavy duty pipe I was looking for, he said, ’Ah, that’s great. You can have it.’ So, they essentially donated it. It always impressed me how Lou gave time, expertise and support to a local environmental organization.”

Mid-City Steel had perfect material for the stanchion — heavy 3 in. high-pressure pipe with walls nearly a half inch thick. To the pipe, a Westport Harbor welder affixed three U-bolts to which Schmitt bolted the fork. He then sealed the bolt holes permanently with epoxy plugs.

Utilizing The Utensil

In the meantime Tom and Kate Schmitt dug a hole 5 ft. deep and roughly 2 ft. in diameter at the location of the fork’s permanent installation. With mechanical assistance, on Oct. 29, they first raised the fork to an upright position and then lowered the stanchion base into the 5-ft. hole. After making sure the fork was plumb, Schmitt filled the hole with rocks and concrete, which, once hardened, secured the stanchion in place.

At 3 p.m. on Oct. 30, Elizabeth Coxe, the artist, property owners, and several of the “Fork Folk” gathered for a brief dedication ceremony at which they sprinkled a bit of champagne, took photos and raised glasses to toast Westport’s latest piece of public art; wishing the fork in the road a “long tenure and many chuckles.”

“My wife and I grew up in Western Pennsylvania. In our experience, Westport poses no greater transportation [driving] challenges than we have faced in other parts of the country,” added Schmitt. “We don’t regard the fork as a needed landmark, just a memorable one.” CEG

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