Letter from Berlin, New Hampshire
If Batman had a van, it might look like the exuberant vehicle I'm in. Ray Paulin, fiberglass fabricator par excellence, is driving me through town, showing me the sights en route to a late lunch. We are in his van, which has a large cowcatcher in front and a smaller version at the rear. Extravagant running boards flow from each side. All the wheels are covered. A roof-mounted spoiler adds a jaunty air. It is a rolling billboard for R.P. Creations, Ray's business at 8 Brown Street.
We're in Berlin, the de facto capital of New Hampshire's north country. Trees rule here. Those trees make pulp, and pulp makes paper. The huge, waterpowered paper mill that works the Androscoggin River is a pungent reminder of New Hampshire's industrial history. The town rests above and on both sides of the river, framed by mountains. Signs welcome visitors to 'The Heart of the Northern Forest.' Though today New Hampshire has a high proportion of workers in high-tech postindustrial jobs, looking around Berlin you wouldn't know it.
How, in this seemingly unlikely setting, Ray came to fashion art from fiberglass is a story of latter-day Yankee ingenuity in a place that remains resolutely New England.
Back to the van Just in case the sculptural swoops and curlicues of fiberglass don't indicate that Ray has certain gifts, there are the hood and side panels. Impressions of his face and hands morph out from them - life masks transformed in resin and glass fibers - as if he is being pushed out through the walls of the van from inside. When people gawk, he likes to say, 'You see what happens when you don't wear your seatbelt?' This has got to be the best ride in Berlin.
We pass the Norsemen Motorcycle Shop, where Ray points out a few more of his creations. They are fiberglass heads of King Neptune; one wears a helmet, the other has the horns Hollywood puts on comic Vikings. In a school playground at 8th and Main, the swings feature black and red fiberglass locomotives. Nearby, a benign purple dinosaur stands in front of a house where day-care is offered. A large open book, indestructibly fiberglass, lists the library's hours. A five-foot ice cream cone, one of his most popular items, marks the Northland Dairy Bar.
Ray is a Berlin native. He lived briefly in New Hampshire's busy southern tier, but the pace there drove him crazy. You were lucky, he claims, if you could use the drive-in window at the bank and get home the same day. In a familiar New England story, Ray's grandfather came to Berlin from French Canada, attracted by work at the mills turning pulp into paper. His father gave nineteen years to that work and then went out on his own, painting, wallpapering, and sanding floors. Ray was one of ten kids, not to mention the two foster children his family embraced. Until fifth grade, he spoke French at school. Then his mother, convinced that English would serve him better, moved him to another parochial school, this one largely Irish. At twelve, he began painting with his father during summer vacations.
He thought he'd like to be a draftsman, but a semester at the local voc-tech taught him otherwise. Besides, he realized, the local prospects for draftsmen weren't strong, and he didn't want to leave for Boston or Connecticut. So, he stayed on with his father, painting until he was about 27. Then he worked as an auto-body technician. Self-taught at first, he took courses for certification. I ask if that's where the gift for fiberglass came from, but he says no. Mostly, he pounded dents and replaced sheet metal. He did develop a strong familiarity with Bondo, a kind of body putty. He calls it fudge, and it's useful for fixing inevitable surface imperfections in the elves, penguins, and other incredible shapes and figures he pulls from his molds to sell to amusement parks, miniature golf courses, and businesses looking to announce themselves with flair.
A hang-gliding accident helped him find his calling. The glider stalled, slamming him into a cliff face. He pulverized a wrist, fractured vertebrae, and had a serious concussion. While he was recuperating, the owners of Santa's Village, a theme park in Jefferson, New Hampshire, called him, asking if he'd like to work for them. The job was to refurbish some of the unusual items on the grounds. Over time, he became their in-house creator. 'I just experiment,' he told me. 'I don't know if there's a school for what I do.'
After nearly seven years, Christmas lost its appeal as a matrix for his creativity. He went back to car bodies. But his desire to imagine, sculpt, and produce the fantastic wouldn't quit, and he decided to open his own business. 'I thought to myself, if I'm going to do what I want to do, I've got to start somewhere. It was right in the middle of Desert Storm. What better time to start than when the economy's in a recession? You've got to be crazy. But if you can go through a period like that and you're still doing it a year or two later, it gives you a secure feeling that, well, jeez, if you did that, you're going to be around for a while, doing what you're doing. And I'm still here, still kicking.'
At 45, not only is he still kicking, but he gets a great kick out of what he does. He built a fourteen-foot-high fiberglass hand that holds his business card on Route 16, marking the way to his workshop. He sells to Storyland, in Glen, New Hampshire, but also to Dollywood (Dolly Parton's theme park in the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee), Six Flags, and MGM Studios, to name a few. His pieces have traveled as far as Hawaii and Venezuela. 'You've stumbled upon someone here who has found something that most people will go through a lifetime to find,' Ray tells me when we talk about job satisfaction, and I believe him.
I can't help but think about Ray against the backdrop of his hometown. The paper mill has been in operation since 1852 and is still a prime source of income for many residents. There is a factory for steel manufacturing and one for Christmas tree air fresheners. There are also a couple of good-sized foundries, some machine shops, and a few businesses in the industrial park. What we're looking at, then, as we drive around, is a place that still reflects a time when most people used their hands in their work, making things. But fewer hands are applied to work these days, if we discount using keyboards. And the population of Berlin is almost half of what it was in 1930. Sometimes, it seems that we live at a time when using your head and using your hands are two separate realms. But hands and head, craft and fantasy, skill and whimsy are alive and well here in New Hampshire's north country. Look for the large fiberglass hand showing the way to Ray's workshop.
Folklorist Burt Feintuch directs the Center for the Humanities at the University of New Hampshire. With David H. Watters, he is editing the forthcoming Encyclopedia of New England Culture, which will be published by Yale University Press.