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You do what?

You go to an opening, a cocktail party, or any kind of social event, and, sooner or later, somebody’s going to ask, “So what do you do?” I tell people I’m an advertising, commercial and editorial photographer, and they often respond on some variation of the theme, “Oh, that’s interesting.” Which is better than a clipped “Oh,” which is the usual response to, for example, “I’m an accountant.” But every once in a while …

Rhode Island, the current world headquarters of Ed Lefkowicz Photography, is, by all accounts, a quirky place. It’s small. It’s a unit of measure. (The BP oil spill, as of June 9, 2010, covered about 16,434 square miles, 13.5 times the size of Rhode Island (You can see the spill on Google Earth here, and compare it to your own location) But I digress.

Rhode Island has some legitimate claims to the beginnings of the industrial revolution in the U.S., and one result was a proliferation of small manufacturers. Some really, really, small, as in one or two people working from a home’s basement workshop. (I once met two brothers, one of whom sold antiquarian books on the side, whose full-time, basement business was to make high-end silicon-carbide mortars and pestles for research labs. Go figure.) While this micro-business model has waned of late, it hasn’t disappeared. Which brings me to Rick.

Rick Martin

Rick’s business is one of those “You do what!?” businesses. I can say this with some certainty, because that was precisely my reaction when he first told me. Rick, you see, makes crowns for religious statues. In his basement workshop. I had to see.

Rick Martin at work making a crown

Pretty basic equipment: a handful of foot-presses that probably date back to the late 1800s, a propane soldering setup with compressed air to boost and control the temperature, a few simple hand tools, and that’s about it. (So far, I don’t think I’ve divulged any trade secrets here.)

He makes a variety of sizes and styles to order. (The market is not what it once was, the decline of the church being what it is, and Rick is apparently the only manufacturer left in the U.S.) The process is by turns more simple and more complex than you might think, and it’s an interesting process to watch. And Rick is an interesting guy to talk to. So we talked. And I made some photos while he worked.

Rick Martin soldering

All of this got me thinking that it would be fun to see who else is out there making things in Rhode Island basement workshops. I’m looking, so if you hear of anyone, let me know. I’ll be grateful for any leads.

Click for more images of Rick making crowns.