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Lighthouse Makers' Creativity Is Off the Charts

Everyone at the Maritime Aquarium last week obeyed the do-not-touch signs – except Courtenay Austin. The Girl Scout troop leader didn't hesitate to step over a rope and put her hands on a temporary exhibit.

But it was okay -- she made it. And she didn't spend much money on her entry into this year's Festival of Lighthouses at the Maritime Aquarium contest. Austin's materials of choice are things other people throw away.

"Somebody gave me a bag of corks," she said. "They said maybe you can use these for Girl Scouts -- there were a lot more than I needed for Girl Scouts ."

Austin, a former volunteer at the aquarium, has entered the contest every year for six years. This year she has a simple triangular construction covered with corks, a lighthouse that several children admired as she stood nearby. It's very different from her first entry, a replica of Michigan's Manistique East Breakwater Light . "The first one was frustrating because it took so much time, and then I decided I would just do them for fun," she said.

Austin would be offended if she won the contest. "I wanted to enter it but I never expect to win because so many people put so much time into it and so much money in," she said. That includes her friend Shar Landers, whom she met when they were both volunteering at the aquarium. Austin says that Landers' entry is her favorite. Landers likes to work with stamped tin, and her "Frighthouse" features a giant octopus climbing ashore to threaten the would-be lighthouse keeper.

Partisanship aside, Austin doesn't know who should win.  "Some of them are creative, some of them are replicas and there's no way of judging them fairly because they're so different." She said the "meticulous" one made of cut stone by Pedro Davila of White Plains is worthy of admiration as is the Sheffield Lighthouse replica made by George Fisher of New Fairfield.

She loves the toothpick lighthouse made by Norman Jensen of New Canaan, and points out the cotter pins used for a railing, saying, "It's all done to scale, 2,400 toothpicks. I didn't use that many corks."

"Owen & Kyle's Fantasy," made by Megan Abrahamsen of Wilton, features diagonal stripes made of toys cars. "The texture is so different, the whole idea is so different," Austin said. "There's a lot of money in cars in that. Those little cars cost 50 to 75 cents each."

Austin made a lighthouse from a stovepipe twice. The first year it was painted black, the second silver. Last year, she used furnace filters. One year she made a twin-towered lighthouse in honor of the five-year anniversary of 9/11, and one year she made a lighthouse with a Peter Pan theme with "a huge plastic globe with stars on the inside and the earth on the center."

Her plans for next year are a closely guarded secret. Suffice it to say that this discarded material is on the opposite end of the elegance scale from corks.

"I just want to do it and get it done," she said. "I do it because it's fun, I enjoy seeing them and it's a fun thing to do, but I would be disappointed if I won anything, really."

Have you seen the lighthouses at the Maritime Aquarium? Which one did you like?

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