Work of Art

Charlie Perry and his latest creation, ‘The Incredible Bolt.’ Photo by Bethany Turner

Crossing the bridge to leave Oak Island, to the right of the structure is an unassuming yet iconic boat yard. A bright-blue giant—a several-ton boat lift—crouches on the edge of the water. Beside her rests an old metal fish house, upon which “Sandy’s” can be read from the sky. And in the large, white warehouse of this boat yard, more goes on than one might guess.

Charlie Perry grew up in Acme-Delco, and his father was a foreman at Riegelwood. After school, he followed in his father’s footsteps. The construction industry taught Perry to be a connoiseur of all building mediums, but his true love was welding.

“You learn all kinds of different trades when you work in construction,” he explains. “We’d go in with the whole project—the roads, the sewer, the pipe, the building, the electrical—you do everything. You had your different compartments, and my trade was pipefitter/boilermaker welder, but it all had to do with metal.”

He’d picked up his first welding rod at the age of 8. He watched his father creating sparks, which inspired a natural curiousity. “I stuck the rod to the side of his arm thinking I was going to get a spark—but I burnt the hell out of him and he jumped about 10 feet in the air,” Perry recalls with a satisfied smirk. “His words to me were, ‘Don’t run!’ Of course, I hauled ass.”

As much as Perry learned from his industry, he was virtually an apprentice to his father. “I learned a lot of welding from my dad,” he affirms. “I learned welding in construction but I learned true welding from my dad—I can weld cast, aluminum, stainless steel, titanium … you know, any of it. I was certified with the state years ago. I was certified on nuclear, and I made one of the first nuclear welds in the state of North Carolina.”

In 1979 Perry set up shop on the property that is now a live-music bar known as Old American Fish Company—a respecting nod to Perry’s American Fish Company, operating as a fish facility where men used to tie up their boats and put their catches on ice. Nearly 25 years later, Perry sold the land to Mark Brisson, a local developer who’s turned it into a bustling hot-spot for restaurants. Now just beside the bridge, Perry’s work as a master yard manager continues. Employees offer their skills at mending boats, and Perry fixes hot lunch—fish, or maybe venison he’s slow-cooked overnight—most days for his men.

“I started building this place on 6/26 of ‘06—I know because you can see where all the guys wrote it in the concrete,” he says. “I had a lot of welders and tools because we did boat repair down there, too. We did the fish but we also kept the boats going.”

His new location isn’t as lively as the last, but Perry believes it was a move in the right direction. “We miss the waterfront, but the fishing industry, with the government stepping in—we were just run out of business. And it’s getting worse for the fishermen.”

While a glimpse inside the warehouse reveals an expected mélange of work-worn tools and dusty floors, Perry can be found at his bench, welding more than just repairs. With skills unavailable to most artists, Perry utilizes his vast knowledge of metal to bring together relics which once functioned to move a vessel. Now they combine to become a sculpted work of art.

“I’ve always enjoyed working with metal,” Perry shares. “It’s a challenge because you’ve got to have the knowledge of the metal—you’ve got to know what its potential can be, and what the breaking and heating points are, and what two metals will take and what two metals won’t take mixed together. There are little tricks to it.”

Perry’s deviation into art began while he was still doing construction. He welded custom rings and belt buckles as people requested of him. “Over the years—of course, I had a stroke in ‘08, so I couldn’t fish or play golf as much as I wanted to—I started making [furniture] for people who had old props and wanted tables and chairs made out of them.”

Perry’s works run the gamut—from a turtle-themed table with a circle of glass allowing a clear view to the prop which supports it, to a pair of bold marine characters: a merman and mermaid. Complete with fish-scale tails made from copper and brass, the sculptures offer a lot of personality. “She’s in love with him, and he’s got a damn attitude from hell,” Perry says with a laugh.

His most recent work is “The Incredible Bolt,” a miniature metal Hulk-like man, with bulging muscles made from bolts and a working pen apparatus. “I try to do off-the-wall stuff, instead of being all nautical,” Perry confirms. “Everything I make is useful.”

The artist’s ideas are instantaneous, and he either grabs hold of them or lets them simmer for another day. “When I’m riding down the road and thinking about stuff, something will come to me,” he describes. “Or at night when I’m thinking about it, I’ll start piecing it together. Just like when I did ‘Time to Go’ and ‘Peace Mon’—I was picking up a piece of pipe, I grabbed it in my hand and thought, Well, I could make a hand out of that. So I took a magic marker and traced my hand out on the pipe; it was really heavy schedule and I had to cut it, plasma arc weld it, bend it, heat it.”

Perry is building his next projects in his mind, talking out his visions as he plans. “I’ll probably start doing some political pieces, representing the next four years coming up. For example, a man bending over picking up a dime with his back broken in two,” he explains. “It’s been a back-breaker these last

four, so these next four are going to be probably as bad or worse, and if it isn’t, then I’ll weld him back up and fix his back.”

Another, which he may call “From the Earth to the Moon: Apollo 13,” will be a table with a shuttle launching from the globe on the bottom, up the shaft, to the moon at the top. Possibly, he says, he’ll add a mirror between the two to reflect the moon’s craters.

Gallery owners, like Don Baker of 8, reach out to Perry to show his pieces. Otherwise, some of his wares are for sale in his wife’s boutique, Three Sisters Boutique, or online at www.chpdesignsnc.com. Perry still creates custom work; folks can contact him by e-mailing chpdesignsnc@gmail.com.

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