Denis Frain is not your typical artist. By day, Frain runs a wildly successful marina. He’s one of less than 300 certified marina managers in the world. He manages a $1.5 million marina and, after 20 years, understands the complexities of city government.
At night, though, he unleashes his inner artist. This career bureaucrat – albeit a watery, relaxed bureaucrat, but a bureaucrat nonetheless – shows the world what he sees out, in and around the water on an aluminum canvas.
“I’ve always drawn,” Denis says. He started carving out his watery dreams on aluminum when he commissioned a piece of art from a Key West artist who didn’t come through as promised because his plasma cutter broke. Denis offered to rent the artist a plasma cutter on on condition: that the artist, who visited Gulfport frequently, teach him how to use it. After that, there was no going back to plain old paper for Denis. And he blames a shark.
Like most artists, his art reflects what he knows.
“Most of the fish I make, I’ve been up close and personal with them – the snook, the crabs, the lionfish,” he says.
He saw the lionfish on his second open water SCUBA dive 20 years ago. On what divers call a “top-to-bottom” day (meaning you can see the bottom from the surface), he dove the Tramp Steamer, a wreck 60 miles due west of John’s Pass. On the bottom, he saw a shadow above him. He looked up and saw a shark.
He and his dive buddy climbed into a sand-filled cargo hold of the ship and watched the giant fish above him. That’s when they saw the spots and realized it was a whale shark, flanked by two eagle rays and followed by two 50 pound cobia.
“It got me hooked on marine life,” he remembers. “I started drawing marine stuff on paper. Just doodle, no painting, just sketches.”
His fascination with aluminum metal sculptures grew when he went into a Bonefish restaurant, and once he learned how to use a plasma cutter, he started creating all kinds of sea creatures.
“They’re abstract art with a little bit of realism,” he says of his work.
He goes home from work or comes off his boat and has an idea in his head. Using charcoal, he’ll sketch it out on salvaged aluminum, then trace it over with a Sharpie. If he wants a certain look, he may find a generic outline online and project it onto the aluminum and add his own creative touches.
Denis uses a compressed air torch that creates a plasma gas to cut the aluminum, then burnishes the piece with a four and half inch sander, increasing the grit until he gets the look he wants.
A two-foot across lionfish, for example, takes him between five and six hours. With two days off each week, he can only create so much. You can only get his art if you commission it or see him at a street festival. He shows his work about six or seven times a year, usually in the winter when the marina is slower and he doesn’t feel bad taking a Saturday off.
You won’t find his aluminum waterscapes in any studios, and he says he doesn’t want to start putting his work in galleries.
“I have a full time job, and if I did that I think it would just be a little overwhelming,” he says. “I think it would just be too much, honestly.”
The work he has sells quickly at festivals, from the smaller pieces to a larger-than life undersea landscape. Despite his work’s popularity, he resists the title of artist.
“I’m not an artist. I don’t play the artist part,” he says. “I do very well. Not enough to give up my day job. I love what I do at the marina; I wouldn’t trade it for the world. But the kids are getting older, and I’m looking at the next chapter in my life, and it looks like it will be metal art for the near future.
“Until,” he adds “I move on to something else.”