Steel that railroad cars have rolled over for a century and slabs of hardwood rejected by a cross-tie maker do not sound like the elements of something you would expect to find on view at the American Crafts Council Show, the annual fair of top-of-the-line crafts that takes over Cobb Galleria Centre this weekend.
But Rail Yard Studios, a new Nashville company, has turned pieces that otherwise were headed to the scrap yard or the furnace into its Rescued and Reused line of artisan furniture that should fit nicely amid the more expected turned-wood bowls, glass, jewelry and pottery hand-made by 225 craftspeople from around the country.
Recycling or upcycling, to use the most au courant phrase, has become such a growing aspect of ACC fairs that organizers added a "Greencraft" category for artists who incorporate recycled materials. A third of the booths will be designated with large, green "G" signs this year.
Rail Yard co-founder-designer Robert Hendrick wasn't thinking of riding a trend when, several years ago, as the owner of a track maintenance and construction company, he noticed the label "Tennessee 1911″ on steel his crew was removing.
"I was like, ‘That's a rail from almost a century ago,'" Hendrick recalled. "I thought, it's a shame to just throw that away."
After a period of gestation, he married the steel with culls from his railroad-tie supplier -- rejected because they had splits, knots or other imperfections -- and launched his rustic-modern line that has produced 30 pieces.
"We're just a very small piece of a very large movement," Hendrick said of the recycling trend. He believes consumers are looking for "things that are one of kind. They want things that are sustainable. That has big meaning for them, because people are being more respectful of the environment."
Rescued and Reused debuted at a Nashville art gallery a year ago and the furniture has gone on to be shown at Chicago's One of a Kind Show and at Chattanooga's celebration of all things railroad, RailFest.
Participating for the first time at an ACC fair, Rail Yard will display wine racks ($500-$1,200), coffee tables ($3,200-$4,500) and a desk ($5,000). For the moment, the firm is mainly selling at shows and creating custom orders for interior designers and architects, though Hendrick ponders developing a more consumer-oriented line that could be carried in stores.
"But that takes more of a factory approach," said the small-scale maker who, at least for now, is content to turn out pieces that are never exactly the same yet manage to slide well into different decors.
"When you begin telling people about this, they think the rednecks done come out of the backyard," Hendrick joked. "But I live in a very modern loft in downtown Nashville with my family and have several pieces. And the CEO of a health care company here has got one of our coffee tables sitting on top of his $25,000 oriental rug in his 1926 bungalow. So it can go anywhere."
American Craft Council Show
10 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. $13 one-day ticket; $20 three-day pass. Reduced admission Friday after 5 p.m.: $5. Under age 12, free. Preview party: 6-9 Thursday,, $75 (includes food, drink, three-day pass; benefits the ACC). Cobb Galleria Centre, 2 Cobb Galleria Parkway. 1-800-836-3470, www.craftcouncil.org/atlanta.
Three more artists to watch
Time for an Americana revival: James Mullan was green before green was cool, recycling broken bracelets and costume junk into jewelry that he sold to San Francisco tourists from a TV tray on the sidewalk when he was 16. That was 45 years ago.
"It really had nothing to do with trying to save the environment," admitted the self-taught Pompano Beach, Fla., mixed-media artist. "It just seemed like a good way to get cheap material and make money."
These days, Mullan's work with his wife Tori -- wooden songbird sculptures they carve and ornament with all kinds of found objects ($200 and up), brass "wish" boxes ($45-$55) and jewelery ($30-$100) -- is very purposeful about repurposing.
"I really like bringing back things that are lost," said Mullan, who employs finds such as brass opera glasses or croquet balls as stands for his bird sculptures and watch gears and wooden ruler pieces as their feathers. "We use a lot of things people don't see anymore ... that are amazing, beautiful pieces of art unto themselves."
Mullan characterized himself as a chronic collector of stuff, joking, "My family used to think I was turning into one of those hoarders with 300 cats."
But his watchmaker father-in-law appreciated Mullan's vision and helped him buy 7,000 pounds of watch parts made obsolete when the Swiss watch invasion put American companies out of business. "I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing," he said, "that I'd never find this kind of material again."
He's surprised how many curious customers at various shows have no idea what his random parts are. But then he thinks of his 18-year-old nephew who, he lamented, is becoming an all-too typical story. "He spent the last five years of his life in his room playing video games on the television. It's unbelievable..."
Please don't feed the animal-maker: Marietta mixed-media artist P.J. Floyd, who will unleash a menagerie of sculptural animals at the ACC fair, recounted with a laugh that she warns friends, "Don't come to my house wearing anything too exciting."
That's because Floyd is a determined repurposer of fine fabrics such as tapestry, tweeds, velvets and sari silk. She hits yard sales, flea markets, thrift stores and even her own closet in search of unusual and fine materials that she either can't find or can't afford at fabric stores.
Around an armature of rebar wire, she wraps and ties these materials to create roosters, elephants, cats, dogs, foxes and more. Her prices range from $35 for a peep to $1,100 for a peacock that took her a year to complete.
The T-shirt, elevated: Savannah College of Art senior Arica Wolfe, one of eight SCAD students gaining professional experience at the ACC fair as part of its School-to-Market program, scavenges T-shirts from thrift stores, cuts them up, digitally prints patterns on the fabric strips and reconstructs them as one-of-a-kind garments.
She will show crop tops (starting at $130), tunics and dresses (each $220 and up) and other women's clothing.
"I grew up making birthday cards out of cereal boxes and recycling has become a recurring theme in my work," said Wolfe, 22, adding that T-shirts lend themselves to repurposing because she can "visually transform" them while the cotton material maintains desirable qualities such comfort and durability.
"Giving a new identity to a common material elevates its status," the artist said. But she nonetheless tries to work with the natural characteristic of the fabric too. Wolfe leaves seams exposed, raw edges curled and many times intentionally prints right over logos and labels, incorporating those preexisting graphics into her designs.
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