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!

My Cup Runneth Over

by Kevin

Beyond the dead end of our dirt road seen in this photo, is a trail beside the stream. The half-hour walk through state gameland to the river, beneath towering poplar trees and beside high rock cliffs is beautiful and renewing.

Living at the dead-end of an humble dirt road deep in the woods, where cell phones don’t ring and we must have satellite dishes to receive TV and Internet, every day is Thanksgiving. Gratitude for this life of peace in nature’s beauty frequently overwhelms me, and I can’t help thinking of the 23rd Psalm – especially the part about how my cup runneth over.

Take yesterday, for instance: I drove up the road three miles to David and Lena King’s Amish farm store – just a little shed by the road — to buy something for dinner. Wearing her long dress and bonnet, their daughter Mary greeted me with her “Dutchy” accent, musically asking, “What will ya be wanting tuhdaaay then?” I looked around the little room, dimly lit only by a few small windows, and spied fresh corn on the cob and onions. I knew she had farmer’s cheese, raw milk, and eggs in the ice box. All of those were very appealing, but I asked if they had any green beans and beets. Mary said her parents were picking green beans right now and she would go quickly to fetch those and pull up some beets for me. I paid $16 for a big box of fresh food and a boost for my soul.

We are surrounded by farms that look a lot like this one, less than a two-mile walk from our house up the paved road.

When Robert got home from his job as a USPS clerk, it looked like rain, so we quickly took our five dogs out of their indoor/outdoor dog run for a walk down to our half-acre pond. When we moved here after selling our big house in the suburbs almost 7 years ago, there were already lots of bass, blue gill, green gill, catfish, big carp, and other creatures in the spring-fed pond. We have added about 90 large koi over the years. Some of them are over three feet long. We hold each colorful fish and give it a name as we put it in our pond. They all look very different from each other and have individual personalities. Yellow Submarine is the queen of her domain at almost four feet long, and she often spends a good deal of time orienting newcomers to her realm. Homey is quite a clown and likes to show off and leap out of the water many times whenever he sees us nearby.

I made two signs for the pond years ago: “NO FISHING! These fish are family pets, and they have names!” Those signs rotted away years ago and I didn’t replace them. People in these parts know now that we do not hunt or fish, although they cannot understand why, since our 12 acres, pond and stream would be perfect for those activities. We are surrounded by 78 acres of state gameland that lies mainly between our property and the river. We like to hike by the stream to the river and back whenever we can, and we are happy that the woodland animals seem to be realizing that they are safe on our land. Native Americans used to live in this wooded ravine, not all that long ago, and we often sense their presence in the majestic rock cliffs and among giant poplar trees. We know that we are just temporary custodians of this land. We are humbled.

In the spring our half-acre pond is surrounded by irises. Our koi are happy and healthy living in pure spring water.

Our dog-people are two black pugs, Snorky and Randy; a long-haired black fox-like puppy that a friend rescued when a speeding car threw him out in the middle of a busy city intersection – we call him Wardell, after the hero in that wonderful trailer trash movie “Sordid Lives;” a beagle who was lost in the woods, dying of hunger, and adopted us at 3am one morning years ago – we tried other names, but only “Dumb-Dumb” stuck, because he is dumber than broccoli; and then there is our white Cairn Terrier, Scrappy — aka King Crappy — because he is so smart and resourceful that he now rules the whole kingdom here at Sawmill Run. We also have 17 tropical birds, including four big talking parrots, but I’ll introduce them to you another day.

For our five dog-people, “Family Time by the Pond” is their favorite part of each day. It is full of ritual. Wardell must be released at the front door to run at top speed down to our tree house deck that we built on Buddha Hill by the pond under three towering pine trees. Randy jumps up on one particular bench to be cuddled on our way to the deck. Scrappy likes to leap into the pond and chase the koi around. They tease him, circle back and bump him in the butt! For a whole week recently, one particular big bass would come right up to the shallow edge of the pond, following Scrappy back and forth as he would pace at the water’s edge. Eventually every visit to the pond ended up in a nose-to-nose stare-down. Fascinating interspecies communication abounds here in the woods. Meanwhile, Dumb-Dumb just smiles and gazes devotedly into our eyes. He’s happy.

Our 150-year-old barn was collapsing because the main support rafter beam had been removed long ago, and the full timber floor joists had been turned to powder by termites. Robert and I rebuilt the barn floor and inside front support wall, put on a new roof, added three dormers and turned the barn into a private art gallery. There is a view of the stream and pond from the glass back door.

It started to rain while Snorky was doing her rituals – bringing me mud from the nearby bogs and puddles and rubbing it all over me to share its cooling and soothing pleasures. Then she brings sticks to place on my shoes. She puts her paws on my shoes and chews the sticks. We both find these rituals lovingly meaningful, and they enrich our relationship. It began to rain hard. Snorky was in her element. Homey leapt out of the pond for joy and for insects. Wardell cuddled on Robert’s lap as we sat in adjacent hand-made Amish wooden gliders and sighed deeply. It rained harder. Thunder shook the Earth. We murmured, “Beautiful… Wonderful!” We could have gone inside our barn art gallery, beside the stream and pond, to enjoy the thunderstorm, but since living here we have preferred to be outside, if the rain is not too cold. Summer rains are such a pleasure!

Our barn art gallery is quite comfortable and inviting, but we almost never sit there unless we have visitors, because the allure of the outdoor hillside deck under the pine trees by the pond always wins. Besides, our dogs don’t seem to care that much for our art. They prefer to play by the pond.

Finally, King Crappy and Randy and Dumb-Dumb, who had been playing and relaxing by the pond, told us that it was time to go in. They said, “Are you crazy? It’s raining and thundering!” so we walked back up the hill to the trailerhouse art studio where the dogs and birds live and where I work, paint and write during the day. We lived there for six years while finishing the half-done construction on our little cottage deeper in the woods – beyond the end of the dirt road – beside a majestic wall of rock. My dear old dad named our new home “The Cliffs.”

We sold our 5-bedroom, 3-bath show home in the suburbs and lived for six years in this 30-year-old collapsing trailerhouse with additions and a vast 6-car, drive-in, dirt-floor basement. Now that we have moved to our cottage by The Cliffs, we use the trailerhouse as our art studios and offices. We hope to gut it eventually and rebuild it from the inside as a standard-construction studio, but we plan to leave the ouside looking exactly like it does now — a sad, dilapidated old trailerhouse. We don’t want to put on pretentious airs, after all.

King Crappy had escaped the dog run, as he often does, and had been out running around in the woods all day. He was muddy and exhausted, but clearly exhilarated and happy. We put him in a snazzy black harness that we call his “tuxedo,” and loaded him into my 4wd SUV along with some fresh Amish corn and green beans for dinner. We drove to the barricade of boulders at the dead-end of our dirt road. I got out and unlocked the heavy logging chain that secures our 250 lb cattle gate mounted on two telephone poles, drove the SUV through, and locked the gate behind us. I remember when we used to have a garage door opener and never got wet… But there are subtler luxuries in the woods.

It was still raining as we four-wheeled down the bumpy hill, through the stream and up to our new cottage – two big 15 ft x 15 ft rooms – one a many-windowed livingroom, and the other our future kitchen, with a bed in one corner and a lacquer black baby grand piano in another. There’s a crystal chandelier in the middle of the vaulted knotty pine livingroom ceiling, between the two ceiling fans. Every knotty pine cottage in the woods needs a baby grand piano and a crystal chandelier, of course! Robert washed Scrappy in our big new half-finished shower while I fixed the corn-on-the-cob and green beans in the electric skillet and 50-cent microwave that Robert bought at a garage sale. That’s how we cook now, and mysteriously our dinners have become better! Some day we will have a proper stove and oven. If we ever have a dishwasher again, I will think I have died and gone to heaven.

Old neighbors who have lived in this valley for 70 years or more tell us that the houses that used to sit on the site of our trailerhouse art studio and on the site shown above, burned down because their stills exploded. Our ravine was famous for illegal moonshine production and their were private dance and booz clubs hidden away in these woods. The wing with an arched window above was framed in but not completed when we bought this property. It had just three tiny windows. We finished the construction and installed big second hand windows. We like to use salvaged construction materials when we can.

After dinner in the screened porch, we sat in the livingroom listening to the rain and thunder, and watching the lightning show. Scrappy was asleep on Robert’s lap. It was so peaceful and beautiful and wonderful. I was overwhelmed by another one of those moments of thanksgiving, and said to Robert, “We are so incredibly lucky. How many people get to live like this?” Robert smiled knowingly and whispered, “Very few.” I found myself thinking of the 23rd Psalm again as the rain fell softly outside:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.