The 81-year-old retired welder and machinist makes whimsical art objects from discarded objects. When Wilkinson sees an old car part or chair he doesn't see what has been, but what could be.
For more than 25 years Wilkinson served the farming and ranching community of Bertram, 10 miles east of Burnet, as a welder and machinist. It was a position akin to being the town blacksmith.
There wasn't much indication of the artistic ability of this good-natured country boy as he worked at his trade. When Wilkinson reconstructed a farm implement or repaired a windmill most folks in central Burnet County thought it was more magic than creativity.
To help draw attention to Bertram's Oatmeal Festival, Wilkinson built what he thought a still would look like, complete with a moonshiner, and put the sculpture in his backyard along TX29. A young inspector with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission saw it and gave Wilkinson an invitation to visit the judge in Georgetown to explain his work of art. The judge sent two older inspectors to check out the still. They got a good laugh out of the work of art and Wilkinson got an apology; it isn't known if the first inspector got to keep his job.
The next big commission Wilkinson received was from the chamber of commerce, who thought that if the city had a dinosaur to pull in local parades it would help attract business to the town. After thinking about it a few weeks, he hit on the idea of making a dinosaur skeleton using parts and junk laying around his shop at the corner of East Vaughan and South East Streets, a block south of TX29.
The 30-foot long white dinosaur skeleton with an oil pan head and crankshaft legs on a trailer was an instant success in local parades. The monster's fame spread to San Marcos, where a college student/filmmaker heard about it and wanted to use it in a film she was working on. The film turned out to be a Mazda commercial that ran on national television several years ago.
In 1991, Wilkinson retired when his grandson opened a welding shop across the street. Seven generations of Wilkinsons have lived in Bertram since his great-grandfather arrived from Illinois.
Mr. Wilkinson was making things for his own enjoyment and to keep busy in retirement when he got a call from a guy who had seen a longhorn skull he had crafted from scraps. "The man asked how much I would take for the skull," Wilkinson said. "I said it wasn't really for sale, but I had been offered $200 for it and turned it down. The man asked if I would take $500 for it and I said, `When do you want to pick it up?'" When the buyer came with the check he also left his business card; he was a folk art collector for the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.
Wilkinson has built eagles, roadrunners, flamingos, and penguins. He's crafted sunflowers from old saw blades, turkeys from chair springs, fire ants and grasshoppers from railroad spikes and armadillos from motorcycle gas tanks. "Somebody once told me it was about time somebody found a use for those motorcycles," he said.
Not only is Mr. Wilkinson an artist, he is also an inventor. One of his finest inventions is a strange blue contraption sitting in the corner of his garage waiting for someone to ask what it is. "That's my fire ant killer," he says with a grin. "What you do is set it down over the fire ant mound. Then you sprinkle a little sugar on the flat surface and wait for the ants to come up. When you've got quite a few you turn this handle." As he demonstrates the cranking, two rollers turn and smash ants.
"I got tired of standing over the fire ant mound cranking the handle, so I built a chair to go with it," he said, pulling up a small stool made with a metal tractor seat painted blue to match the ant smasher. "Then I needed someplace to set my soda pop where the ants couldn't get to it, so I added this here little shelf."
When his wife saw his invention, her comment was: "For an old man with no more time left than you've got, you'd think that you'd find something better to do with your time."
After spending a lifetime working hard, Garrett Wilkinson has found a way to keep active in his retirement. "It started out just for fun," he said, "but it started to pay off."
Coming up this weekend...
Fourth of July Celebration goes all weekend in Fredericksburg with pari-mutuel horse racing at the fairgrounds, July 4-6. 210/997-6523 or http://www.fredericksburg-texas.com/.
Fourth of July Picnic in Schulenburg begins with lunch and ends with Czech singers and fireworks at St. John's community (don't forget to visit the area's painted churches). 409/562-2457.
Freedom Fiesta in Seguin keeps the Wave Pool open late, has barbecue, games, and ends with fireworks at 9pm in Starcke Park, 6-10pm, July 4-5. 800/580-7322 or http://www.seguin.net
Great Train Race from Cedar Park to Burnet pits bicyclist against the Hill Country Flyer steam train for over 40 miles, July 19. Early registration ends July 11. 512/447-8468 or
Texas Music Events Calendars are available free from the Texas Music Office, 463-6666 or http://www.governor.state.tx.us/music