The Lake Provides

Driftwood artist Brian Pardini is celebrated in Erie, Pennsylvania, and beyond for his work. But he insists that his mission is simple — to take what nature gives him and bring out the form hidden inside. 

Brian Pardini holds out a piece of formless driftwood, then turns it around in his hand.

It becomes instantly recognizable.

As though he’s breathed life into it. A squirrel is perched in his hand, its tail held high, its ears at attention, and its little paws folded under its chin.
Pardini, 73, is an artist who, for more than two decades, has worked primarily with driftwood he finds along the Lake Erie shoreline in Erie, Pennsylvania. His pieces take on the shape of animals, people and, sometimes, otherworldly figures.

His one-of-a-kind art can be found throughout Erie. There are 40 pieces displayed in the windows of Erie’s beautiful bayfront library. Dozens are showcased at the Erie Art Museum until September. Even more are for sale at Erie’s favorite art shop, Glass Growers Gallery.

The pieces, ranging from whimsical and joyful to somber and restrained, are remarkable in their simplicity. It looks as if Pardini has just plucked them from the shore and said: “Ahhh. There you are.”

Josh Helmer, the director of the Erie Art Museum, compares Pardini’s vision to that of Michelangelo’s, who has been credited with the quote: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

“They are two artists who share a philosophy about their materials,” Helmer says.

Pardini, though, unlike Michelangelo, does minimal sculpting of his pieces. In fact, some of the pieces he mounts just as he’s found them washed ashore. Others require a little more work to expose the figure he sees inside. Sometimes, for instance, he adds an arm or a head, using nail and putty to join the pieces together. On other occasions, he uses a Dremel tool or sands a piece to, as he says, “bring out the form inside.”

“I see something; it makes a connection with me,” Pardini says. “Really, I feel like someone who has found a cave painting, or another piece of forgotten art. I’m just the one saying, ‘look at this.’”

Pardini’s driftwood pieces come in all sizes; his biggest stands at more than 12 feet tall and weighs hundreds of pounds. Another, perched on a corner of a shelf in his studio, is the size of a tip of a pinky finger. But even though it’s tiny, you can see, when you peer closely, the outline of a little dog.

Pardini creates his work at his studio, perched on a tree-shaded bridge over Godfrey Run — a creek where, on a recent spring day, steelhead splashed below attempting to work their way upriver to spawn. 

He’s been coming to this spot on the lake since he was a child in the 1950s. His aunt and uncle owned the cottage above the studio, and Pardini was a frequent visitor. He bought the cottage when his uncle died, and he transformed the garage into his mustard-yellow studio, adding windows, as well as flooring and weathered wood rescued from an abandoned icehouse that fell off the bluff onto the beach below.

“We carried it from the beach where it fell, walked it back here and used it,” he says.
He calls his cozy studio the Crow’s Nest, after the birds for which he has a special affinity. The walls — inside and out — feature artwork created not only by him and his partner of 26 years, Patty Baldwin, but also that of friends whose work he admires. 

It’s an inspirational place. But it’s outside the walls of the studio that Pardini finds his muse.

Just 100 feet to the north, the water that travels under his studio swirls into Lake Erie. It’s during walks along the Lake Erie shoreline that he finds both his materials and his inspiration.

“I walk, and whatever catches my eye I’ll pick up and give it a look,” he says. “Some I throw down, and some I put in a bag or in my pocket.”

He has found pieces so large that he has returned in a swimming suit and then floated it to a spot where he could haul it onshore and muscle it into his truck.
“I never know what will inspire me,” he says. 

Using the treasures from the lake makes him feel connected to the people who made their home here hundreds of years ago.
“The indigenous people of this country found meaning in natural objects,” he says. “I feel connected to a long line of seekers and finders of gifts from nature that may touch the ancient soul in all of us.”

It’s the connection to the natural world that makes Pardini’s work so accessible, Helmer believes. During a recent event at the museum, the director noted how kids and adults stood in front of Pardini’s display, pointing out their favorites.

“What makes Brian’s work so interesting is that it’s accessible and friendly, but in a sophisticated way,” Helmer says. “He takes this everyday thing — driftwood — that many of us might consider mundane and arranges it in a way that forces you to imagine something else. It connects with all of us.”

Back in his studio, Pardini lets a visitor poke around in the bins of driftwood he’s collected, each of which has spoken to him in some way. There are a lot of driftwood pieces here, and even larger ones lined up against the side of his studio.

“I’m very prolific because the lake provides,” he says. “I just use what the lake wants to give me.”