Victor Aquino was trained by knights.
Wielding a modified pair of needle-nose pliers, he hunches over a table at the Remington Bar in Whitefish. A Native American pendant symbolizing humility hangs from his neck as his worn fingers work swiftly over a pile of beer can tabs, weaving the discarded aluminum into a flower pattern.
Three hundred beer-tab flowers stitched together will make the perfect Japanese-style chainmail shirt to match his floor-length coyote fur cloak. He described the garment as “a hug you can wear all day.”
Aquino collects bottle caps and beer can tabs from bars and restaurants around Whitefish, repurposing the waste into art, useful goods and chainmail. He and his wife, Jean, sell the artwork at their Etsy shop, “Star Meadows Oddities and Other Stuff,” alongside canned and foraged goods from their farm and the nearby forest.
With long, wavy brown locks and a humble demeanor, Aquino bears the essence of a man who stumbled into a time portal sometime around the year 1200, was spit out in the late 1980s and has since learned to adapt to a modern world. He’s a farmer, gatherer and artist with a love for all things Medieval and a loathing for waste. He has wanted to be a knight since he was a little boy, but says he’s simply not tall or handsome enough.
So he satisfies his knightly inclinations at craft fairs, where he dons 12th century attire and teaches kids sword fighting.
He admits the knights who trained him in sword fighting and chainmail making are not formally recognized by the monarchies of the globe. Rather, they are members of the Shire of Crystal Crag, the Kalispell chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronisms.
“We step out of this realm of existence and step into the distant past,” he says, slipping on a custom-fitted galvanized steel glove. The metal glove is modeled after a Crusades-era wood carving of Richard I. It took him five tries to make a pair flexible enough to hold a pen.
“And they’re dishwasher safe,” he says.
It’s the closest Aquino comes to bragging. He believes in letting one’s artwork speak for itself. “If you don’t stay humble, you are a target to yourself. If you don’t stay humble, somebody will humble you.”
Aquino, 50, served as a U.S. Marine from 1989-1993, stationed in Saudi Arabia and Camp Pendleton. He met his wife at a bar in California 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 none.” He likes to say that his obsession with history prevents him from making the same mistakes everyone else did before him.
His relationship with repurposing started with a large collection of bottle caps overflowing out of an antique ice maker in their Star Meadows home. For 10 years, the couple had opted to save their bottle caps rather than waste them, and Jean was tired of looking at them.
Refusing to discard the collection, Aquino transformed the trash into ornaments, jewelry and baskets.
“Most artists seem to have an inclination to mental aberrancy,” Aquino says. “It bugs adults, who have an idea of how they think things should be. I have to remind myself to stay as close to normal as possible.” As he says this, he rummages through his bottle-cap basket of chainmail, fireweed jelly, ink and quills to find his small, round, Elton John-esque tinted glasses.
A deviation from normalcy is what attracted Larry Ingvalson to bid on an Americana bottle-cap basket at a VFW raffle. “I had to have it,” Ingvalson said. “He’s making art out of old trash. I wish I was that motivated.”
Aquino’s initial collection of artwork was so popular that he started asking bartenders around Whitefish to save their bottle caps and beer can tabs. A bar like the Remington will collect more bottle caps in a night than he and his wife could collect in a decade.
“My craft is funded by delinquency,” Aquino says, sipping a ginger beer. “People sacrifice their brain cells for my artwork.”
Shaundra Savage has been saving caps and tabs for Aquino since she started bartending at the Remington over four years ago, although she was familiar with the bottle-cap collector for years prior. Aquino never hesitates to thank Savage with a jar of sauerkraut. The recipe, she admits sheepishly, is better than her grandfather’s.
The sauerkraut recipe comes from Jean’s mother, a Polish World War II refugee who immigrated to America after her home country fell to communism. Jean learned the exact canning method as a child and continues to make gallons of it every year. “You have to use a crock pot, and a wooden stomper,” she explains. “It has to be cut a certain way and weighed down with a particular rock.”
Jean is a self-proclaimed “small, grumpy woman” who only stands as tall as the shoulder of her 5-foot-6 husband. Her inclination is for animals more than anachronisms. “I’m the normal one,” she says.
In addition to canning, and a little bit of glass blowing, she takes responsibility over sheering the angora goats. “I only have 13 now because I’m old,” she said, noting they used to have as many as 50. She spins and knits the wool, using natural dyes from plants like beets and goldenrod.
Aquino admits he does not share his wife’s rapport with animals. While he considers himself a cat person — “I try to respect their opinion of me” — he resents the peacocks he believes Jean keeps just to drive him nuts. However, he finds that their feathers make useful quills for scribbling black walnut ink onto birch bark paper.
Aquino gathers walnuts and birch bark from the public forests near his Star Meadows home in autumn to make greeting cards and business cards. A birch birthday card reads, “Happy Birthday from Juglana and Betula,” a pun referencing the Latin names for the plants.
“I always worry about that language as a dead one,” he says.
Forest discoveries like yarrow and giant mushrooms (culvecia gigantea) often make it into the Etsy shop. Foraged fireweed jelly and rose petal jam sell alongside chainmail belts, bottle-cap card tables, Dryad tears and magical black sand.
“Magic is representative of what you hold in your hand,” Aquino says as he punches another hole in a Budweiser bottle cap 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. Her work can be found at www.picturemt.com.