Squeezing new life out of old junk
The hot term in art and green-thinking circles is upcycling, where you take a product, new or used, and make it better. Artist Brian Carlisle of Shreveport prefers the word “repurposing,” utilizing objects that have seen better days and turning them into useful, artistic creations.
The only problem he admits, is that most of his customers don’t use them at all, preferring to place the now pieces of artwork on pedestals.
It all started with birdhouses. In 2010 Carlisle found a used hammered copper coal bin and envisioned turning it into an elaborate birdhouse.
“I started looking at it artistically,” Carlisle explained. “I saw the handle as a perch, saw where the hole would be.” That first birdhouse was the start of a new career for Carlisle, although he still works as a freelance graphic designer. He sold that piece and eighty birdhouses since then—in addition to bird feeders, furniture, lamps and an assortment of other repurposed objects—as part of his business called GadgetSponge.
Almost everything Carlisle creates has been repurposed from items found, bought and given. Take a vintage chrome flour canister, for example. A faucet handle serves as the perch, old utensils are bent to create legs—and silverware trays, a thermostat and other pieces accent the creation. Another birdhouse evolved from an electric burner base and a couple of vintage chrome kitchen canisters—highlighted by a car emblem, faucet handles, napkin rings, silverplate pie server and more. Both offer a handy opening at the top for pouring in birdseed and are built to withstand sun and wind, Carlisle said, although rarely do his customers leave them outside. His furniture follows a similar bent, from a 1930s nightstand decorated with Louisiana maps to the waist-high vintage Philco radio Carlisle repurposed as a clothes hamper. His most recent creation was a chest of drawers with a top shelf missing. Carlisle finished the interior of the empty space where the top drawer once rested with punched metal sheets, then added vintage metal gym locker baskets. He used metallic paint on most of the piece as a finish, made the second drawer unmovable, accented the outside with an “American Ironer” emblem and on top added a vintage vanity light fixture.
“My wife and I are pretty hard-core junkers,” he explained, adding that he finds the items used in his artwork at garage and estate sales, plus family and friends bring him items. “Lucky for me half of the stuff comes to me now.”
Take the water skis, for instance. Carlisle asked his friends to be on the lookout for some and the result was a wall unit organizer graced by two metal baskets and a vintage red Tiger Chewing Tobacco tin and topped by a lamp.
Carlisle gets an idea from one object and then builds on his creation, he said. “It pretty much grows on its own.”
His business has grown as well. Where once he utilized only a third of his three-car garage, now artwork has taken over the entire room, filled with pots, furniture and other objects waiting for a new life. People have asked about visiting his “studio,” but he doesn’t encourage them.
“I try to keep it organized but it’s not working out well,” he said with a laugh. “It’s really not as exciting as you think it is. There’s a lot of dust, dirt and clutter.”
The company name GadgetSponge dates back to Carlisle’s first foray in repurposing objects. He had collected antique papers, postcards, old photographs and the like and started a blog called PaperSponge.com to show off his ideas and elicit creativity from others.
“It was my first sponge, so to speak,” he said.
But now it’s his repurposed artwork for GadgetSponge that’s garnering national media attention and clientele. And as much as it’s about the creative spirit, there’s an element of social responsibility, Carlisle said. “Nature is part of GadgetSponge and I try to give things a second life to hopefully prolong the life of the product and keep it out of the landfill.”
GadgetSponge gadgetsponge.com etsy.com/shop/GadgetSponge