Victor Aquino was trained by knights.
Wielding a pair of modified needle-nose pliers, he leans over a table in the Remington Bar in Whitefish. A Native American pendant symbolizing humility hangs from her neck as her worn fingers quickly work over a stack of beer can tabs, weaving discarded aluminum into a flower pattern.
Three hundred beer blossoms sewn together will make the perfect Japanese-style chainmail shirt to match her floor-length coyote fur cape. He described the garment as “a hug that you can wear all day.”
Aquino collects bottle caps and tabs of beer cans from bars and restaurants around Whitefish, repurposing the trash into art, useful goods, and chain mail. He and his wife, Jean, sell the artwork at their Etsy store, “Star Meadows Oddities and Other Stuff,” alongside canned and forage products from their farm and the nearby forest.
With long, wavy brown locks and humble demeanor, Aquino carries the essence of a man who stumbled upon a time portal around AD 1200, was spat out in the late 1980s, and has since learned to adapt. to a modern world. He is a farmer, gatherer and artist with a love for all things medieval and a loath for waste. He has wanted to be a knight since he was a little boy, but says he’s just not big enough or handsome enough.
He therefore satisfies his chivalrous inclinations at craft fairs, where he dons 12th century clothing and teaches children sword fighting.
He admits that the knights who trained him in sword fighting and chain mail making are not officially recognized by monarchies around the world. Rather, they are members of the Shire of Crystal Crag, the Kalispell chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronisms.
“We are stepping out of this realm of existence and entering into the distant past,” he said, putting on a bespoke galvanized steel glove. The metal glove is inspired by a wood carving by Richard I. It took five tries to make them into a pair flexible enough to hold a pen.
“And they’re dishwasher safe,” he says.
It’s the closest Aquino to boast. He believes in letting his work speak for itself. “If you don’t stay humble, you are a target for yourself. If you don’t stay humble, someone will humble you.
Aquino, 50, served in the United States Navy from 1989 to 1993, stationed in Saudi Arabia and at Camp Pendleton. He met his wife at a California bar in 1996, and the couple moved to Montana two years later.
Aquino claims to be “a jack of all trades, but alas, a master of nothing.” He likes to say that his obsession with history keeps him from making the same mistakes everyone else has made before him.
Their relationship with reuse began with a large collection of bottle caps spilling out of an old ice maker in their Star Meadows home. For 10 years, the couple had chosen to keep their bottle caps rather than wasting them, and Jean was tired of looking at them.
Refusing to throw away the collection, Aquino turned the trash into ornaments, jewelry and baskets.
“Most artists seem to have a tendency towards mental aberration,” Aquino says. “It bothers adults, who have a sense of the way they think things should be. I have to remember to stay as close to normal as possible. As he says this, he rummages through his basket of chain mail, fireweed jelly, ink and quills to find his little round tinted Elton John glasses.
A deviation from normality is what prompted Larry Ingvalson to bid on an Americana bottle cap basket in a VFW raffle. “I had to have it,” Ingvalson said. “He makes art with old garbage. I would have liked to be so motivated.
Aquino’s initial art collection was so popular that he began asking the bartenders at Whitefish to keep their bottle caps and beer can tabs. A bar like the Remington will collect more bottle caps in one night than he and his wife could collect in a decade.
“My profession is financed by delinquency,” said Aquino, sipping a ginger beer. “People sacrifice their brain cells for my works.”
Shaundra Savage has kept caps and tabs for Aquino since she started working as a bartender at the Remington over four years ago, although she had known the bottle cap collector for years. Aquino never hesitates to thank Savage with a pot of sauerkraut. The recipe, she sheepishly admits, is better than her grandfather’s.
The recipe for sauerkraut comes from the mother of Jean, a Polish refugee from World War II who immigrated to America after her home country fell under communism. John learned the exact canning method as a child and continues to make gallons of it every year. “You have to use a slow cooker and a wooden stomper,” she explains. “It has to be cut in a certain way and weighed down with a particular stone.”
Jean is a self-proclaimed “grumpy little woman” who measures only her husband’s shoulder at five feet. His penchant is for animals more than for anachronisms. “I’m normal,” she said.
In addition to canning and a bit of glassblowing, she takes responsibility for pruning Angora goats. “I’m only 13 now because I’m old,” she said, noting that they had up to 50. She spun and knitted the wool, using natural plant dyes like beetroot and goldenrod.
Aquino admits he doesn’t share his wife’s relationship with animals. While he considers himself a cat – “I try to respect their opinion of me” – he resents the peacocks he thinks Jean is keeping just to drive him crazy. However, he finds that their feathers make useful quills for scribbling black walnut ink on birch bark paper.
Aquino collects nuts and birch bark from the public forests near his Star Meadows home in the fall to make greeting cards and business cards. A birch tree birthday card reads: “Happy Birthday from Juglana and Betula”, a play on words referring to the Latin names of plants.
“I’m still worried that this language is dead,” he says.
Forest finds like yarrow and giant mushrooms (culvecia gigantea) often arrive in the Etsy shop. Forage Fireweed Jelly and Rose Petal Jam sell alongside chain mail belts, card tables with bottle caps, Dryad’s Tears, and magical black sand.
“The magic is representative of what you hold in your hand,” Aquino says as he pokes another hole in a Budweiser bottle stopper with his modified pliers.
Jessie Mazur is a writer, photographer and owner of Picture Montana. Raised in Whitefish, she now lives in Marion with her 3 year old daughter and their dog. His work can be viewed at www.picturemt.com.