With a quick glance around his well-kept workshop, one thing becomes undeniably obvious: Walter Croft has a way with wood. His impossibly intricate, hand-carved and painted-to-a-sheen Narragansett cans look ready to crack open. The soft drapes of his “mesh” sports jerseys and the lazily winding shoelaces on his rounded sneakers look so fabric-like that wood is probably the last material you would expect them to be made of – miraculously, they are nothing but. Don’t expect Walter to boast about his handiwork, however; for someone in possession of such remarkable talent, he couldn’t be more down-to-earth. Most would consider his creations to be art. For Walter, it’s just a fun hobby that he loves to do now that he’s retired. He has not tried to sell a single piece, but demand has finally grown to the point where he is open to doing so in the near future.
Originally from Georgia, Walter has lived in different parts of Rhode Island since getting out of the Navy in 1969, followed by a stint at Sears and running his own carpentry business; now, he calls Coventry home. He humbly states that he “cannot take credit” for his artistic ability, instead crediting his mother, a clay sculptor, for the artistic gene, as well as the fact that there was no TV in his household growing up; instead, the family would sit around at night listening to the radio and having fun with arts and crafts projects. Walter noticed that he could draw fairly well in high school, and over time he developed a knack for meticulous detail. He started out playing around with carving miniatures post-retirement, mostly freshwater fish (he is an avid fisherman), and then tried carving some sports memorabilia for his two sons. It started with a baseball bat and then mushroomed from there.
“I love the challenge of really intricate detail in miniatures,” Walter says. “I’ll carve whatever piques my interest at any given time; ideas just hit me.”
He carved a Yoo-hoo can in a moment of childhood nostalgia, and then started noticing how beautiful some of the artwork is on various beverage cans and bottles. He wanted to make items based on products manufactured specifically in Rhode Island, and Narragansett Beer ended up being one of his main sources of inspiration, especially as the brewer releases more and more seasonal and specialty beers (and new label artwork along with them). He paints each of his carvings using basic acrylic paints, and for items meant to be shiny, he sprays them with a glossy finish spray.
Although Walter has not sought recognition, it certainly seems to be seeking him. An acquaintance familiar with Walter and his work decided to alert the owners at Narragansett about his wooden cans, whereupon he and his work became the subject of a “Made on Honor” promotional video released by the brewery.
“We still keep in touch,” says Walter. “They’ve been very generous. The CEO has quite a collection of antique cans and bottles that he’ll let me borrow and copy.”
The Narragansett video was just the beginning; Walter’s very first gallery show at the Dryden Gallery at Providence Picture Frame will open at the end of February and will be on display through the end of April. A spectrum of all his different objects is featured, including fish, miniatures, cans, sporting memorabilia and more.
Despite whatever acclaim he might receive in the future, Walter is confident that it’s his sheer passion for his hobby that will continue to motivate him.
“Once I get into my work, I totally forget about time; I’ve gone as long as 16-18 hours without realizing it. Sometimes my hands start shaking because I haven’t eaten in eight hours,” he says. “I just love it, and I spend a lot of time carving and painting when I’m not babysitting my granddaughter. My two boys inherited the artistic gene too,” he notes proudly. “And now, even my four year-old granddaughter is showing evidence of it.”