Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
It started with a great white shark. Actually, the great white shark.
Production for the movie Jaws commenced on Martha's Vineyard in the summer of 1974. Needing someone to weld railings and stanchions on a couple of fishing boats, the crew enlisted Travis Tuck, a 31-year-old metal artist and co-founder of the local artisans' guild. Meanwhile John Alves, the movie's production designer, had decided a shark-shaped weather vane would look nifty atop the temporary structure serving as the workshop of shark hunter Quint. Alves asked Tuck whether he could make such a thing. Tuck produced the weather vane in a week, charging Universal Studios $150.
Forty-three years later, custom weather vanes from Tuck & Holand Metal Sculptors start at $15,000, and there is a two-year wait. Each one is fashioned by hand by Anthony Holand, Tuck's former apprentice, who took over the business after Tuck's death in 2002. On a windy day in Martha's Vineyard, you'll see the pair's handiwork spinning atop town halls and steeples everywhere you look.
Holand, clad in a leather apron, labors alone among hammers and anvils in a studio on State Street, a half mile from the ocean. Visitors can tour the workshop and a gallery displaying a handful of finished works--not just weather vanes but also bronze compass roses and island maps forged from copper or brass. Not surprisingly, nautical themes are popular--including sharks, of course.
Holand is happy to produce the classics from a portfolio of patterns that he and Tuck created over the years. But he gets more satisfaction from the custom pieces that reflect a client's personal life or passion. "Each piece tells a story--about love for a wife or a child or a favorite dog," says Holand. "Sometimes it's a story in symbols. Like a lighthouse with three sailboats where mom and dad are the lighthouse watching over their children."
Some weather vanes celebrate more public successes. For example, America's Cup champion Dennis Conner ordered one based on one of his yachts. Ron Sargent, the former CEO of Staples, bought a traditional arrow weather vane with a tail composed of paper clips. "He wanted some kind of office supply, and his initial idea was to do a Swingline stapler," says Holand. "His wife said no."
Summer residents Bill and Ann Lucas became clients in the mid-'70s. The couple and their grown children now own multiple Tuck & Holand creations.
"If you look at American folk art, both Travis and Tony are two of the leading weather vane artists of the 20th and 21st centuries," says Bill Lucas. "They are exceptionally good workmen, and Tony has branched out into these sculptures in copper that are absolutely wonderful. He has the technique and he has the creativity."
The great white hope
Travis Tuck served in the Army and graduated from New York University before dedicating himself full-time to art. He studied metalcraft in the New York City studio of Hans Van De Bovenkamp, a Dutch sculptor acclaimed for his monumental abstract works in bronze and steel. In 1969, Tuck opened his own small New York studio. A year later he decamped for Martha's Vineyard, which he'd grown to love while working there as a bartender during summers in college.
In 1974, Tuck and a group of like-minded artisans revived the Depression-era Art Workers Guild, a cooperative housed in a building owned by songwriter James Taylor. In his section of the shared workspace, Tuck crafted lamps, clocks, and planters, items he could sell to tourists and summer residents. The Jaws shark was his first weather vane. "It was pretty primitive, but that was the point," says Holand.
Alves took that shark home with him to California, and several people who worked on the film ordered weather vanes of their own. A little later, Steven Spielberg inquired about getting a shark. But by that time, Tuck had raised the price to $300, which--the story goes--Spielberg considered excessive. (In 1994 Spielberg, fresh off Jurassic Park, paid many times that for a velociraptor weather vane.)
Over 15 years, business built slowly. The affluent hordes willing to commission custom pieces had yet to descend upon Martha's Vineyard. But that changed in the early '90s. As demand grew, Tuck turned for help to apprentices.
An alliance forged.
Holand grew up in Washington State on a farm cluttered with scrap metal. "I got a crash course in welding from my uncle, and the next thing you knew my mother had a yard full of sculpture," he says. One summer after college, Holand was working in a bike shop on the Vineyard when he spied an ad in the local paper for an apprentice to a metal sculptor. "I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do and how to stay on Martha's Vineyard," says Holand, who had dreamed of landing a job at Lego or Industrial Light and Magic. Instead, he beat out 19 other applicants and picked up a chisel.
In Tuck's studio, Holand studied the fine art of vanecraft. He learned to handmake the cardinal points: north, south, east, west. And he mastered repousse, a technique for creating shapes or designs in the front of a sheet of copper by hammering the back of it.
In 2001, Tuck and Holand accepted their most ambitious project. As part of a donation to Penn State, AccuWeather founder Joel Myers commissioned a Nittany Lion weather vane for the university's football stadium, which was being expanded. The completed structure, for which Myers paid about $80,000, was 10 feet long. "At the time it was the largest full-bodied weather vane in the world, and still is as far as I know," says Holand.
Most apprenticeships last just a couple of years, but Tuck and Holland had a good chemistry and continued on together. The two discussed forming a partnership, eventually leading to succession. "Then everything sped up," says Holand. In 2001, Tuck got sick. The next year he died. Holand bought the business, which already bore both names, from his estate.
Today, weather vanes account for more than half of Tuck & Holand's business, although increasingly customers buy them to display indoors. Holand also produces mobiles and metal sculptures. For example, he built a model of a Mockingjay for the literary agent who represents The Hunger Games books.
Working alone--"Finding the right apprentice is tricky," Holand says--the business cannot keep up with demand. Each piece takes at least a month to produce; and Holand works on only one or two at a time. That's fine with some customers, who may take a year or more after their initial conversation to decide what they want their weather vane to look like.
Some customers choose from among the numbered editions, while others want something more personal. "The fun part is getting to know the client," says Holand. "I extract what I need creatively from them to make the kind of piece that will be passed down through generations." For Eugene and Carol Ludwig, for example, he recently made two weather vanes, one for each of their golden retrievers. After talking with his clients about the dogs, Holand "captured the spirit of each animal with their unique physiognomy and personality," says Eugene Ludwig.
Despite the demand, Holand has no desire to ramp up production with more employees or a retail store on a tourist block. "Expanding would lose the whole concept of what this business is," he says. "Each one of these pieces has its own life. You start pumping them out--what is the point?"