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Reduce, reuse, repurpose

Reduce, reuse, repurpose

Making new creations from old components

March 19th, 2017 by Allen Fennewald in Life & Entertainment

John Downs displays his hand-crafted lamps at his house in Jefferson City. Downs has been creating lamps from a variety of objects for approximately three years, but he also has an avid interest in woodcarving and crafting in general.

Photo by Shelby Kardell /News Tribune.

In a world where new discount furniture, artwork and appliances are only a Walmart away, what inspires people to spend their time and effort refurbishing, combining and repurposing old possessions into new devices?

Like a still life painting of a recycling bin, the drive to restore and re-imagine finds admiration in the seemingly mundane while also benefiting the environment by reducing the waste stream.

Here is a look at what drives some area craftspeople to produce a variety of repurposed items, whether to be sold or kept. Their work ranges from antique furniture and family memorials to cigar box guitars and saxophone table lamps.

Curbing the waste stream

John Downs is a Jefferson City resident who enjoys making furniture — such as a stained-glass kitchen table made from a secondhand front door and wooden pillars from his own house — and making lamps out of repurposed items like brass instruments and pulley systems. He said he has sold 40-50 of his refurbished or repurposed items in the past year.

While living in Illinois, he ran a business making wooden toys from scrap wood. Downs moved to Jefferson City to work for Missouri's Office of Administration and is now retired.

"I get a great satisfaction out of things I've been able to salvage and make it look very nice again," Downs said. "I'm sitting here looking at a chest of drawers we've had forever, and it was ugly and didn't look good. I repainted it and put a different finish on the drawers. It makes it very pleasing. I made something look better. I didn't have to throw it on the curb and get rid of it, and I saved money."

In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency reported the United States threw out 9.8 million tons of furniture per year. Furniture was the least recycled household item, amounting to 4.1 percent of total household waste. In 2014, the EPA reported the country disposed of 136 million tons of trash in landfills.

Downs is not the only one who appreciates quality old-fashioned furniture and creatively preventing waste. Peggy Davis, owner of Shop Girl — a Jefferson City store offering a mixture of new and vintage furniture, antiques and other products from local artists and craftspeople — said many young customers who grew up in the wake of the consumerism boom want well-built vintage furniture.

Peggy Davis, owner of Shop Girl, transformed a cart into a planter, making it easy to move in and out of the sun as the plants may require.

Peggy Davis, owner of Shop Girl, transformed a...

Photo by Shelby Kardell /News Tribune.

"(Millennials) really are coming to this type of store to buy vintage furniture," Davis said. "They like the history of it and that it's probably better made than what they can get today in stores, and they like that it's not going to end up in the waste stream anytime soon."

Creative therapy

Davis learned to salvage and repurpose from her mother, who grew up during the Great Depression and made use of compost piles and recycled aluminum foil.

"We didn't throw things away," she said.

As an adult, it is her goal to throw as little away as possible, whether it means using an old headboard as a garden trellis or cardboard boxes as trashcans.

Davis started repurposing as a girl, making a miniature koi pond from a washtub. Now, she is constantly working on different projects, like making a shelving unit from a metal swing. She also encourages others to take up the hobby — which she refers to as "creative therapy" — by offering starter projects in her store.

"We have lots of vintage furniture we bring in so people can paint them," she said. "I encourage people to create. Whether it's older people are younger people, it does something to your brain. Whether it's painting something or refurbishing a piece of furniture. It gets your mind off what's going on that day. I see it as therapy."

Carrying on tradition

As Davis carries on her mother's practices, Allan Jay Palermo — aka "Retro Al" — keeps the old blues tradition of building and playing cigar box guitars alive and rockin' along the Mississippi River in Jackson.

He probably frequents tobacco stores more than anybody else who doesn't smoke, always searching for new boxes. He loves the raw, authentic sound of these handmade instruments that date back to the dawn of American music.

"These have a unique sound to them for playing (with a) slide," he said. "They lend themselves to the old slide players, like the old (blues musicians) who played diddley bow (homemade guitars) like this, because that's all they had access to."

When he gets home in the evenings, he blows off steam with one of his cigar box guitars. They are his favorite thing to create and play, though he has also worked with standard full-size instruments and often sits in on bass with a local band.

He said the guitars made him a better musician because he had to think about the music differently to play with only three strings. They also made him a better craftsman — after working as a luthier and repairman at a music store for 28 years — because he has to think "outside the box" to find different materials. Steel bolts have become a guitar's bridge and nut, and a metal dog bowl is now a resonator.

Palermo builds his three- and four-string blues machines in a shed adjacent to his home and sells them privately or online. Musicians as far away as Australia have tried to order one of his cigar box guitars, but Retro Al is too practical to have anyone pay $500 in shipping for a $150 guitar.

Cherished memories

For Palermo, one of his most cherished cigar box guitars is a beautiful white model he made for his mother. People often use repurposed or antique items as memorials.

Laura Forbis remembers her late husband, Pat Forbis, through a quilt made from his necktie collection that she keeps on her bed so she can curl up with it. Her husband, who was the coordinator of sports medicine at St. Mary's Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, died unexpectedly in 2014.

Laura Forbis' tie quilt was made using her late husband's ties, and the teddy bear made from one of his shirts.

Laura Forbis' tie quilt was made using her...

Photo by Shelby Kardell /News Tribune.

"He was known as the tie guy," Forbis said. "I made him narrow it down to 75 ties a few years ago. I kept the ones that were the most important and reminded me of him the most."

Forbis operates Managed Chaos, which helps people organize their possessions and filter out the junk from the treasures.

"I'm a firm believer that if something means something to you, you treat it as such," she said. "If it has meaning, and it's something you care about, then care for it. You don't shove it in a box and put it in storage where you only visit it every 10 years."

The tie quilt makes Forbis happy because it brings to mind old memories.

"It's like having a part of him still in our space," she said. "It's a part of him here still with me. It makes me smile because I can look at it and remember when he wore certain ties, like the Winnie the Pooh tie when our son was little."

Forbis said every tie has its own story that offers comfort in the present, just like every old tradition holds the values that shaped our world. Every antique carries a history and the potential for a new beginning.