By Patrick Brooks
“You sure you’re not a terrorist?” is a question Vern Blinn gets a lot. For him, building scale models of drilling rigs was a way to pass the time as a young rig hand back in the ’50s and ’60s and being away from home for weeks on end gave him ample opportunity to explore a crafty side that he didn’t know he had.
Model after model, Blinn developed an unforgiving eye and his attention to accuracy and detail became hallmarks of his replicas. Although armed with a first-hand working knowledge of the rigs he recreates, sometimes the underlying mechanics of a lesser-known rig design required that he do a bit more research. He was usually able to find answers by taking a copious number of photos to clarify what’s on the “hidden” side of those units, but with scale and proportion still a challenge in many cases, he would often request engineering drawings to help with spacial accuracy, and it was during those conversations found himself trying to convince the lease holder that his intentions were indeed noble and not sinister.
With more than 40 of his models ending up in museums, teaching institutions, and fundraising events, the Alberta Provincial Government pitched him an offer of a lifetime in 2006: Could he bring three of his models down to the National Mall of the United States in Washington, DC for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival?
Alberta was the first Canadian province ever featured in the Festival and Ralph Klein’s government was pulling out all the stops to showcase Alberta’s energy, agricultural, and cultural industries. The keystone of the province’s economic strength, the oilpatch, was represented by a huge Caterpillar cargo truck which caught the attention of a few US-based environmental groups. Unfortunately, the spectacle of the truck ignited the current long-standing “tarsands campaign” that followed the Festival.
When asked if anyone had ever called him out on mistakes in his work, he recalls only one time when one of his models was on display at an agricultural exhibit in Duncan, BC. There happened to be a tool pusher who lived down the road and he left a fix-it note with an itemized list of things that were wrong in Blinn’s depiction of the rig and its equipment. Given that many of his models have a compromised execution given the reality of size and space, Blinn knew they were there…but it took a tool pusher’s eye to spot the little things that were not exactly right.