CLINTON — Aidan Keefe Rayner had to leave Whidbey Island before appreciating the many wonders of his rocky home turf.
After graduating from South Whidbey High School in 2010, he moved around, living in Canada, California and Seattle. During the summer of 2016, he returned home to attend a memorial service.
He stayed, got a job, bought a house, learned welding and let his imagination soar.
Piece by piece, spark plug by flywheel, motorcycle engine by fork, wrench by scissors, Rayner melds a menagerie of animals and other rustic wonders in his Clinton garage.
Crows, owls, flowers, herons, bunnies, guitars, pigs.
They’re all created from junkyard scraps of metal found at Island Recycling where he works as a heavy machine operator.
Many artists prowl its piles to pick out potential fodder for recycled and re-purposed art.
“It helps staring at metal all day to come up with my ideas,” the 28-year-old said. “And I get first dibs. What people throw away is crazy.”
Rayner’s first solo presentation, “Scavenged Scrap,” was recently on display at the Bayview Cash Store Hub Gallery. Most of the pieces sold at his first show but can be seen on his Facebook page.
Goosefoot Community Funds’ director of programs, Marian A. Myszkowski, asked Rayner if he had enough pieces to fill a gallery after seeing his work at its recycled art show.
“The detail in his work is so inventive,” she said. “He’s incredibly talented and an artist who deserves more exposure.”
Two years ago, Rayner approached two accomplished Whidbey metal artists, Brian Jones and Tim Leonard, for help learning welding basics.
“He took right to it, and it was a pleasure to teach him,” Jones said. “Over the years, I’ve had quite a few people come to me to get started in welding and metal fabrication. It’s especially rewarding when someone picks it up with Aidan’s degree of enthusiasm and natural ability.”
Particularly impressive, Jones said, is Rayner’s ability to shape-shift piles of rusty junk into critters and other recognizable forms.
“Not everyone can look at a pile of scissor blades, gears and locks and see a majestic owl,” Jones pointed out. “He has a great eye for what bits of discarded metal can double for animal anatomy and he’s not afraid to be free with his interpretation.”
Old forks turn into a frog inside a heron’s beak that’s made from scissor blades; tiny locks with a scrap of color turn into a bird’s breast feathers; pliers form the pincers for a piece named “Mr. Krabs.”
Rayner’s talent in metal sculpture emerged because of who died that sorrowful summer three years ago.
It’s also the reason Rayner is working on his biggest piece and biggest commission to date, a life-size howling wolf.
His identical twin, Dylan Keefe Rayner, died June 7, 2016, of an accidental opiate overdose, weeks shy of his 25th birthday. Dylan had been prescribed opiate painkillers after major surgery. It led to the spiraling cycle of addiction, rehab and heroin abuse.
The twins had both moved to California at different times and attended different colleges in the Bay Area.
Aidan aimed at becoming an illustrator and took classes at California College of the Arts. Dylan started out at Western Washington University and then switched to Laney College in San Francisco to study welding and metal sculpture.
Aidan’s job at Island Recycling helped him see the possibilities of what to do with metal.
“That’s what Dylan was really interested in,” he said. “I feel like I’m living through him. In a way, it’s part of the healing process.”
He said his training as an illustrator brings a sense of realism to the sculptures which often capture scenes from his natural surroundings.
“My goal is to make something beautiful out of these throwaway pieces,” he said. “I often try to capture a special moment or unique pose that adds personality to the piece.”
Rayner said he’s glad he moved back to Whidbey because its plethora of artists are generous with their time and talent.
“I’m really indebted to Brian Jones for showing me how to stick weld,” he said. “He’s been a huge influence on me, as well as the whole art community here. I have a newfound appreciation for Whidbey Island.”
Rayner pauses a moment from figuring out how to better construct a head for a wolf. Hubcaps, wrenches, springs, spatulas, sprockets, spades, fence posts, tractor parts, all in various stages of decay, spill across the driveway.
He’s just knocked off his first attempt on the wolf’s head on the advice of his girlfriend, Jenny Marshall. She’s also a welder and works in the Freeland studio of Jean Whitesavage and Nick Lyle, who create large metal fabrication pieces for public spaces nationwide.
Rayner looks out from the garage studio at a darkening sky, his face framed in touches of gray hair and faraway eyes. Once there were two of those faces on Whidbey Island.
He describes being extremely close to Dylan, remembering their time together spent exploring beaches and forests. The times they would scrounge scrap yards together and talk about how working at a junkyard “would be the coolest thing.” The times they fooled teachers and sat in each other’s classes.
“I don’t think I ever would have come back if it weren’t for Dylan,” Rayner says. “I wouldn’t have gotten into metals.”
The wolf is bound for Wasatch Academy in Mount Pleasant, Utah, a college prep boarding school where Dylan attended during some of his high school years. He was a National Honor Student, excelled on the snowboard team and was named an outstanding psychology student.
“The wolf is a memorial piece for him,” Aidan said. “Wasatch Academy commissioned it.”
This story originally appeared in the South Whidbey Record, a sibling paper to the Herald.