CREATIVE RECYCLING: Make Art and Buildings with Junk


by Kevin

Robert and I are always on the lookout for junk and used stuff that we can repurpose to make art or to continue constructing our home and barn art gallery and other buildings here in the woods where we live. We just finished the polished stone wall, pictured above in the living room of the cottage we are building in the woods beyond the dead-end of our dirt road. This rock wall took us a little over a month of evenings and Sundays to build, and it is a solid example of a junk project.

All the double-pane, argon-filled windows in the living room are also salvage. The knotty pine wall and ceiling planking was purchased in an Amish “mud sale” auction. And the black walnut floor was a fallen tree processed by an old order local Mennonite lumber man.

Ten years ago from our moving car, we spied some jagged chunks of the beautiful polished stone sticking up out of the dumpster of a countertop business near where we used to live. We didn’t know quite what we would do with it, but we knew we had to have it. The manager of the place said we could take scrap out of their dumpster in exchange for bringing an occasional case of beer for the people who worked in the countertop business. We were enthusiastic dumpster divers for beautiful chunks of polished stone for several years, and ended up moving our heavy treasure to the woods when we sold our big house in the suburbs and moved here.

Using salvaged materials to make art and buildings requires an eye for beauty and value obscured by a layer of mud or rust, and a willingness to engage in creative problem solving while working through each customized project.

We still did not know what we were going to do with the polished stone. Eventually we purchased three acres adjacent to our original woods where we lived in an old trailerhouse. The new land included a small half-constructed hunting cabin that we decided to finish and turn into a cottage for ourselves. Then it hit us – the polished stone would make a beautiful accent wall in our new home. Six weeks ago we significantly strengthened the foundation supports under the living room to carry several tons of additional weight. We hauled truckloads of the stone to the cottage and lived with the rock puzzle pieces spread out all over the floor for a month while we constructed the wall.

First we had to cover the surface with concrete blue board secured to the studs with long screws every six inches. We found industrial strength mastic, especially formulated for heavy rock walls, and buttered the back of each rock as we installed it, with shim and occasional support screws in between. It took both of us to lift some of the larger 1.5”-thick stones into their places. When the entire puzzle was finally solved, Robert grouted the whole wall in one afternoon and washed it about 20 times.

We love our humble little cottage in the woods even more than we enjoyed our big fancy house in the suburbs. Yes, we are still sleeping in a corner in the unfinished kitchen and cooking with an electric skillet and a 50-cent garage sale microwave, but we have never eaten or slept better. Next summer maybe we will use some of our salvaged lumber to build a bedroom or two.

The hunting cabin itself was a piece of junk when we bought it. Friends strongly advised us to tear it down and start over. The previous owners were chain smokers with five indoor pit bulls and Rottweilers. They left mountains of the worst kinds of garbage and trash all over the property. The cabin itself smelled so foul that the only way we could plan and take measurements was to run in holding our breath and look around for 60 seconds before bolting out again to gasp for air. We had to leave the building open to the elements for over six months before we could bear to spend time inside and begin the massive cleaning chore.

So, we understood why people felt we should tear down the place and start over, but we could also see very clearly that the basic construction was strong and sound, and we knew that if we could purge and clean it, the skeleton would be a good beginning upon which to construct a new home for ourselves. Four years later it is becoming a real jewel, and the memory of the stinking junk heap it used to be has faded from our minds. Now we see only what it is today and what it will become tomorrow. We are using mostly salvage windows, doors, lumber and stone to build the house, and we do all the labor ourselves, so our costs are very low.  It’s a house made of junk, and we are very proud and happy to live in it.

If your couch and chairs and rugs are starting to look a little ratty, paint them! Robert’s painted furniture is very popular. Be sure to use water-base acrylic paints, because they remain rubbery and flexible and do not get brittle when dry.

All you need to become a “creative recycler” is an eye for interesting used materials that might be good for some future purpose. You have to believe that junk can be cleaned and repurposed to make something interesting and beautiful. The “outside settin’ sofa” and 3 straight back chairs and rug above were ready for the junk heap. So Robert painted them in his inimitable style with acrylic paints, and now they have a new life. It helps if you are willing to be a bit of a pack rat and store junk for a while until the right opportunity comes along to give it a new incarnation. We collect and store lots of junk. Two days ago we brought home a big truck and trailer load of used lumber from a country dwelling that was being demolished.

Flea markets and garage sales are great places to find valuable junk. I made the “Jeweled Christmas Tree” above almost entirely from junk jewelry and beads and fake pearls that I found at such places over a period of years. The finished junk jewelry mosaic is one of the most popular art projects I have ever completed. Everyone seems to want this pile of junk!

Another building on our 12 woodland acres that looked like it might not be long for this world was our 150-year old barn. The front wall had collapsed outward substantially, because the former owner cannibalized the major support rafter that held the building together, to use for other purposes. The first time we walked into the collapsing barn, Robert fell through the floor and into the lower level which was full of flood debris and disgusting trash. It turned out that all the full timber floor joists had been turned to powder by termites. The floor was nothing but dust! What a mess!

A lot of people might have left the old barn to fall down, but we discovered that the old oak frame had hardened to the consistency of steel and was extremely strong. So we decided to save the structure and turn it into our Barn Art Gallery. We constructed an entirely new load bearing front wall inside the original collapsing wall. We took out the floor and built a new one. Multiple rafters now hold the building securely together. We covered the interior walls with a puzzle of irregular shapes of salvage plywood that we bought from an Amish farmer after he removed a thousand nails from the 40 pieces. We constructed dormers and installed salvage windows. Today it is a beautiful and peaceful refuge beside our stream and pond, decorated with junk furniture and carpets that people were planning to throw away. Eventually we hope to expand the gallery to show more art.

We often get criticized for buying water and sodas in plastic bottles, but I have saved every single container for seven years, and I am starting to make art out of all of them. We personally drank all the water and soda out of the plastic containers that make up the somewhat tongue-in-cheek “Rose Window” above. It looks beautiful when the sun shines through it. I am still constructing a water bottle chandelier. Each of the 220 bottles glows with a tiny white LED light stuffed inside. I’ll add another 100 water bottles and hang the chandelier from the vaulted ceiling over our kitchen. I am also planning to make tall glowing cone-shaped trees of plastic bottles as outdoor sculptures.

Randy, our little pug puppy, fell asleep on the edge of his water bowl, slipped in and drowned. But Robert brought him back to life with five minutes of vigorous mouth to snout CPR. My 16″ x 20″ junkart construction, “Randy Valentine,” commemorates the joyous resurrection of our puppy. Randy is healthy and normal today.

“Randy Valentine,” above, is a small prototype for larger junkart pieces to come. Our pug Randy is immortalized as he looked when he was a puppy. Here he is made out of shredded junk mail paper mache with real painted egg shells for eyes. He is nestled in a yellow styrene chicken tray adorned with hearts cut out of used red plastic picnic plates and surrounded by flowers made of water bottles. I bought the glitter and beads and tiny plastic animals for pennies at our local dollar store before it closed.  The chickens are made of eggs shells.

Why make art and buildings with junk? We all know how important it is to recycle. The earth is smothering in our junk – especially the carbon emissions and greenhouse gas junk we are spewing into the atmosphere, mainly by burning fossil fuels. If we want to leave a place where our children and grandchildren can live in the future, it is important to stop dumping our junk into the vital waters, soils and atmosphere of our home planet. It is time to buy and use less stuff, and begin finding new uses for our old junk that will otherwise end up in the landfill. It is certainly important to collect our plastic, glass and paper and turn it over to recycling systems that can convert those forms of junk into reusable pellets to make new stuff. With a little bit of creative thought and a new mindset that looks for ways to repurpose our junk, we can also eliminate the middle man and give our junk a whole new life on our own! And it’s loads of fun!

10 thoughts on “CREATIVE RECYCLING: Make Art and Buildings with Junk

  1. The new rock wall is spectular so creative. Kevin, you and Robert are an inspiration. The bottle stained glass is beautiful. I am an enthusiastic long time recycler. I bought on old Sear Kit house that had been empty For a year. I loved it’s bones. It has been a joy and a challenge to make it uniquely mine. As a country we are astoundly wasteful. I love poking about in flea markets, yard sales and Goodwill to find new uses for things that, as a craftsman I can incorporate into something new. Thanks your article just made my morning.

  2. I’ve long wondered what pieces of granite might be good for…you’ve given me inspiration. I love what you’ve done with your house(s) and saving what others would have simply torn down. Keep it up! Looking forward to further postings.

  3. Kevin, I had never seen the Christmas tree before. It is so beautiful. Where do you keep this? Thanks for writing about how you and Robert are always on the look out to repurpose refuse to make beautiful art. You inspire me with your writing and with your amazing art. The stone wall is incredible. I can’t wait to see it in person.

    • Right now the “Jeweled Christmas Tree” is leaning against the wall in my painting studio waiting to be repaired. I had glued the junk jewelry mosaic to the surface of a beautifully framed bevelled mirror, and the extremely heavy piece looked great gracing various walls for over 5 years. I just happened to be standing right in front of it, looking at the mosaic at the exact moment when it decided to tear itself away from the mirror surface and fall! I caught it in mid-air! Nevertheless, there was some damage around the edges that I need to repair before reframing the piece. I hope to include it in my Manchester exhibit next fall. Thank you for your enthusiastic reaction to the first photo I sent you of our new polished stone wall. It was, in part, your strong positive reaction that encouraged me to write the “Creative Recycling” post. YOU are an inspiration!

  4. You had me completely fooled that the stone wall was contractor made, it looks so perfect. I would kill to live in a ‘natural’ home. Hahaha. Enjoy the bliss guys. I think its fabulous that you guys put so much pride and energy into making sure what you do with your resources and goods.

    -David Enabulele

  5. Loved this post. Your simple cottage in the woods is a real palace and the idea that you used so many recycled materials is wonderful. Good luck in the future!

    • Thanks WildBill, we love life more every day here deep in the woods. And you are right… our little cottage feels like a palace to us, even though the bed is in the corner of the kitchen. Last night thunderstorms rolled through all night long. We left the back door of the kitchen and some windows open. There is nothing better than sleeping to the fresh breezes and sounds of rain and thunderstorms and then waking up to the birds singing.

  6. I was mindlessly late night click, click, clicking away through who knows what, and landed here… what a treat, to say the least! I love every single thing about you and your amazing eyes for treasure. Magnificgant. SO glad I got off at the wrong exit, haha ! Thank you!!!

    • Thanks for your appreciation. There really are treasures hidden all through the trash and casually discarded detritus of civilization. It is great fun and very personally gratifying to rescue those treasures and give them a new purpose in our lives. It is also essential for humanity to use all of our resources much more economically and thoroughly if we are to leave our children a livable planet. Right now I am making a sparkling spring wreath for my 86-year-old mother, out of discarded water bottles, cut, painted and fashioned into flowers. Art can be made from any material, including junk.

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