Artistic Waters

MARQUETTE – Bill Waters likes to burn cedar incense around his miniature canoes.

Not for the smell, although it is aromatic, but for the ambiance.

Waters, 78, who lives in south Marquette, makes model birch bark canoes from the bark of fallen trees, blending in his fascination with the voyageurs – French-Canadians who transported furs by canoe hundreds of years ago – and the Hudson’s Bay Company.

He’s been crafting the little canoes – which are models, not the real things, he stressed – for about two years.

The retired Northern Michigan University criminal justice professor found inspiration for his creations after finding a piece of birch bark on a walk.

“For the first time since I’ve been living up here, and that’s about 40 years, somehow I had an epiphany with this material,” Waters said. “I touched it, and I had it close to me and I could smell it. Just everything, all my senses, were piqued by this piece of birch bark I picked up.”

As he folded it, it occurred to him it represented “nine-tenths of what a canoe was all about.”

Once he got home, he snipped the shape and glued the ends, and before he knew it, he had a pretty basic canoe.

He’s been modifying the canoes ever since.

“Now I’ve advanced to the presentation stage,” Waters said. “It’s not only about making the canoes, it’s about how best to present them.”

One of his creations, for example, includes a scene from a Chippewa village.

“It’s another way to present canoes,” Waters said.

Where it’s a scene or a simple canoe, though, his pieces are realistic, embellished with a painted pine cone for a tree, for example, or miniature cargo and paddles in the boats.

His canoes also work in his love of a certain part of history: the voyageurs and the early canoeists.

“The voyageurs took it to an extreme level,” Waters said of the craft of making birch-bark canoes.

He also is fascinated with the culture of Hudson’s Bay Company, whose roots date back to the 1600s when two Frenchmen discovered furs were accessible via Hudson Bay. Forts and posts where items like beads and blankets were sold sprung up across Canada.

In fact, Waters said that sometimes at all-day shows, he’ll wrap himself in a Hudson’s Bay blanket.

Since his creations revolve around voyageurs and Hudson’s Bay, Waters has done a little historical research along the way.

“I didn’t feel like I had to,” Waters said. “I just have because I become more interested in it as I go along.”

With his work displayed in galleries from Sault Ste. Marie all the way to Grand Marais, Minnesota, the feedback, he said, is that it’s authentic.

“They don’t look like they’ve been made by an artist who wants perfection,” Waters said.

He acknowledged not having a lot of patience, so artistic perfection hasn’t been his top goal, but his pieces turn out better because of it.

It also should be noted he didn’t have formal artistic training.

“It just came to me,” Waters said.

Obviously, his criminal justice background didn’t lend itself to being a major part of Waters’ creative process.

“For a long time, I’ve heard that everybody – almost everybody – has a creative side, but it may not come out if you don’t find your medium,” Waters said. “The medium is the vehicle.”

A person could be terrible at watercolors, music or dancing, he said, but fortunately for him, he found his medium, and once a person finds the right one, “inspiration just follows like a tsunami.”

What adds a special touch to being around his canoe art, again, is the woodsy scent of the cedar incense.

“It’ll just lend an outdoorsy, birchy, north woods-atmosphere ambiance,” Waters said.

Starting Monday, his work, he said, will be shown at Donckers, 137 W. Washington St., Marquette, through September. Since the restaurant/store has wall space, he’s working on ways to hang his canoes.

Waters’ work also is sold locally, he said, at Michigan Fair, 114 W. Washington St., and at the Flying Moose, 351 W. Washington St., both in downtown Marquette.

Flying Moose sells local produce and coffee as well as many “general store” items in a down-to-earth, rustic atmosphere.

“His stuff just fits in with the whole theme of the store,” said co-owner Melanie Poch, who noted the store is big on featuring local artists’ works.

To learn more about The Waters Collection, call Waters at 228-8830 or email

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.