The collector and creator behind Monumental Finds
Driving down the Gateway hill into Frankfort, one of the first things that visitors see is a rooftop labeled “ANTIQUES” sitting next to the Shell gas station and across the street from the A&W. But what’s inside is so much more than 100-year-old furniture, fine china, or brass doorknobs. (Though you’re likely to find these, too.)
Monumental Finds, which occupies a 1,200-square-foot space that was once an appliance store and later a Sears Catalogue business, is full of fun treasures. An eclectic array of strange, colorful art pieces — made with scrap pieces of this or that — is mixed in with antiques and collectibles that have never been refinished.
Sitting upon a vintage coffee table, an old stump has come to life with pool balls for eyes and corncob skewers for spiky hair. He’s even sticking his tongue out at you; a tongue that’s made from a toy dinosaur’s tail. Across the room, there is a pristine old dollhouse. Hanging above it is a fish sculpture, painted lime green with deer antlers for fins and barbed wire for teeth. Clinging to a framed picture on the wall as if she were rock-climbing in a gym is a Barbie whose skin has been painted all over with black and white cow spots. In contrast, a pair of life-size mannequin legs and attached swimming fins have been painted and appear to be diving into a bucket like Amazon frog legs into a pool of water. The beams in the ceiling are exposed, and plenty of light pours into the shop.
Outside in the side yard, there are outbuildings made from old windows and adorned with rusty license plates and the grill of a yellow Jeep.
To have such an inventive imagination is a rarity. The creator of the madness is Bob Thomas, known simply to friends as “BT.”
In 2004, 21 years after his first visit to Benzie County, BT threw out his computer, packed up his life in Virginia, and moved a barn full of antiques via four truckloads all the way to Northern Michigan. He had been making annual summer pilgrimages Up North, but he was finally ready to trade in big city life for a lake house and swap out a business of carving headstones for one of sculpting from scraps.
BT grew up in the Washington, D.C., area. After graduating from Washington and Lee University with a degree in journalism — which he unabashedly told this reporter there is no money in — he tried his hand at various enterprises, notably carving monuments (gravestones) for his family’s business and later raising pigs on his farm. Of the latter, he quips, “I ate well but made no money.”
The Thomas family business is a cemetery down the street from Arlington National Cemetery, certainly an eminent location. Bob still maintains three other monument shops in the D.C. area but leaves them in the hands of his partners, who, he says smiling, pay him “to stay away.”
And for the most part, he seems happy to. A warm, gregarious, and witty man, BT made friends here quickly. Moreover, he has attained notoriety not only for his Frankfort business but also for his own prowess as a sculptor.
From way-out fish to Barbies gone wild, BT’s sculptures are continually evolving. He created his “first fish” in 2005, inspired by his acquisition of folk art from The Ben Sherman (Manistee) estate at an auction in Benzonia. He had been so inspired by Sherman’s artwork that he thought, “Hey, I can do that.” BT entered the fish sculpture in a show at Point Betsie Lighthouse, where it was purchased by Wes Blizzard. BT credits the purchase to affirming that yes, indeed, he could do this art thing.
He had already begun collecting supplies and accessories (now stored in boxes in the backroom of his shop) such as: deer antlers (good as shark fins), shoehorns (useful for fish scales), table legs, Sculpey Baked Clay, a bag of turkey feet, barbed wire, Venetian blinds, croquet mallets, driftwood, stumps, and other very unusual accouterments. His brother, an avid hunter, gave him a deer hide that he painted and used for fish scales. A south Florida fisherman sent a dozen swordfish bills as payment (trade) for a sculpture commission.
A local picker recently sold him a pair of cow skulls.
“Half the fun is chasing down the parts and pieces for my sculptures,” he remarks.
In 2008, one of BT’s friends surreptitiously entered a fish sculpture called “Mick Jagged,” into a show on Solomon’s Island, Maryland. The show, called “Wild Things,” was held in Anne Marie Gardens and owned by the Smithsonian Institute. BT’s entry won first prize and was named “The Wildest of the Wild Things.” The fish, made from a birch bark log and, of course, various other add-ons, is now on display at his home on the south shore of Crystal Lake. (Though you may have seen it, along with five log “heads,” at the Oliver Art Center’s “Furniture, Fiber, and Sculpture” gallery last spring.)
Though there are still many antiques at his shop, BT admits that the art is taking over.
But no matter — for isn’t that what wild things do?
Most days you can find BT at 1311 Forest Avenue in Frankfort, but you might call first to see if he is in: 703-675-7835. You will enjoy browsing his monumental finds, antiques, and embellishments, with no pressure to buy — just have fun! There is a blog, if you are interested, but don’t count on Bob Thomas to know what’s being written — no computer, remember? Visit OutsiderArtOriginalSculptures.blogspot.com.