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Tell Me Your Story: Artist, Korean War Veteran recalls early Wickford

December 9, 2010

Photo: Martha Smith John Allen Arnold Weaver displays his interpretation of St. Paul's Church.

John Allen Arnold Weaver, who grew up in Wickford, proudly traces his ancestors to such distant realms as the Knights Templar and the Normans of England. Locally, he goes “right back to Plimouth Plantions” and on to Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold.
He puts a positive spin on Arnold – remembered, alas, chiefly as a traitor, noting, “He did quite a bit for Rhode Island. He divided a lot of the land in Jamestown” into parcels. The first Weaver to settle here was James, in 1620. John, now 77, diabetic and a disabled Korean War veteran, reminisces about his colorful childhood in Wickford where his family played an important role in the commerce of the village. “We’re all intermarried,” he says, smiling. “I’m an old Yankee.”
His early life was tragic.
His grandfather, father and sister all died the year he was born, leaving his mother, Rose LaBelle Weaver, emotionally drained. All of her energy went toward taking over her late husband’s job and becoming the breadwinner.
“I lived with the Driscolls from the age of two till nine,” says John, “then I was sent to parochial school. I’ve been on my own all my life.”
Meanwhile, his mother stepped in as agent for the New York, New Hampshire and Hartford Railroad operations at two stations – Wickford Junction and as a spur to Campbell’s Green, in the village. She held the job until the end of World War II.
“She took care of everything,” says John, presenting an archival photo of a robust woman singlehandedly trundling a cart loaded with a steamer trunk and other luggage. “She met the train at 7 p.m. at Wickford Junction and early morning as well, taking packages off and loading others on.”
During the war, before the rail line was finished to Quonset, trains carrying ordnance – accompanied by troops armed with machine guns – would thunder through from Belleville to Wickford. “The trains would shake the station,” he recalls. “They were full of cannons.”
His father and grandfather had started Weaver’s Express, a sort of local precursor to UPS, picking up shipments from businesses and hauling them to the train station.
“They went to the dock and picked up oysters to be shipped to New York,” says John. “They handled the freight from Hamilton-Webb Industries.”
He recalls the days when the ice man traverses the village making deliveries and his recollections of the 1938 Hurricane, when he was only five, are vivid. “Big old oak trees were flying by the house.”
His late father’s farm was located where Paul Bailey’s car dealership is and John has photos of his father and Bailey unloading new cars from the train.
As a teenager, John earned a reputation for his physical strength while working for his Uncle Peter in Peace Dale. “I unloaded two carloads of cement by myself every week for $30. A thousand bags per car.”
He and his two brothers entered the military: Clarence and George served in the Navy. During the Korean War, John became a corporal with the 22nd Marines, was wounded, and spent nearly eight months in a California Navy Hospital.
The once-formidable man emerged completely disabled.
He settled in Hawaii where, for 23 years, he owned a factory making wooden toys. Along the way he became friends with Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton who expressed interest in marketing his homespun products, a deal that failed to materialize.
John became an electrical engineer and self-taught artist, devising a creative form that he calls “3-D Raised Engineering”. For the past two decades he has worked at his craft, producing mixed media works on plywood, some of them three-feet tall.
The process involves creating a picture, applying glue to plywood, covering it with molded putty and applying various shades of craft paint, glitter and magic marker. For special touches, such as clapboards on structures, John uses a common fork to rake across the surface; metal and beads are also employed.
There are so many pieces stacked everywhere in his tiny apartment near the waterfront in Narragansett, it’s difficult to navigate from place to place. The former living room has become his studio; the hallway is jammed.
John says the content of his creations are divinely inspired. “When the spirit came to me He told me what He’d like to have me do. I have no formal training.”
He is drawn to landmarks such as lighthouses and churches – his collection includes an enormous rendition of St. Peter’s in Wickford and the Wickford Lighthouse – but he also constructs remembered scenes of Hawaii.
He also has a fondness for unicorns and dinosaurs (“Why not?” he asks) and that’s why one piece features a volcano spewing molten lava as a pair of dinosaurs look on. In another, a pterodactylus (flying dinosaur), mounted on metal, springs from the canvas in IMAX-like intensity.
There are flamingoes, dinosaurs mounted on a mirror; even a Rhode Island Red chicken.
He would like to sell some of his inventory to help with medical expenses but, he admits, at any given moment there are three new projects in the works.
To speak with John about his art, he can be reached at 284-2867.
Martha Smith can be reached at mgs3dachs@cox.net

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