Baltimore artisans create something new from something old

For The Baltimore Sun
Three Maryland artisans share what they love about working with materials that had previous lives.

For artists and artisans, recycling is often more than just a worthy, environmentally friendly action. It is a source of inspiration. From metal to wood to found objects, reclaimed materials infuse new furniture and artwork with meaning and depth.

Here, three Maryland artisans share their stories and what they love about working with materials that had previous lives and purposes.

Forging something new

Benjamin Matthews, owner of Parkton-based Moonlight Forge, didn't always know he wanted to work with metal. But he did know he wanted to work with his hands.

Matthews got started as an apprentice to Crawford Hubbard of Hubbard Cabinetmakers in Butler. "I've always had an interest in the way things work, and that drove me to seek out a more hands-on vocation," he says.

He built on that experience at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he "dabbled a little bit in metalwork," he says, and in an apprenticeship with an Arizona blacksmith named Mike Riemer.

"It was just in love at first sight," he says of his blacksmithing experience. "I was willing to do all the crazy apprentice jobs just to be around it, it was so exciting."

Though he's now beyond the apprentice stage, that excitement hasn't disappeared. "I take a lot of satisfaction in forging," says Matthews, adding that being a blacksmith allows him to combine his talent for problem-solving with his desire to create and be productive.

In his work, Matthews uses new and reclaimed materials to create items that include tables and gate hinges. In metalwork, he says, using reclaimed materials can be a time-consuming and expensive process. The look, though, can be worth the extra cost and work.

On projects including reclaimed elements, Matthews often works with Salvaging Creativity, a salvage warehouse and custom fabrication shop in York, Pa. "Their whole raison d'etre is either to use materials you have that are a part of your business or have personal, sentimental value," he says.

In one recent project, he collaborated with Salvaging Creativity on a large table that used propane tanks as a base.

"The idea is to put a value on our past," he says. "Especially in urban environments, people are proud of where they live. So by putting a manufacturing element out in the open, it makes people feel good."

For more information, visit custommade.com/by/moonlightforge

Quilting history

Glenda Richardson has a fine-arts degree from Howard University, a masters in information science from Catholic University and a career's worth of experience from the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress. But her passion — quilting — came not from school or work, but from her grandmother.

"One day, I thought, 'I'm going to make a quilt because my grandmother made these,'" says the Fort Washington-based quilt maker. "I made one and never stopped making them."

Richardson's quilts aren't run-of-the-mill bed coverings. By incorporating jewelry, found objects, lace and even photos into her quilts, her creations are works of art that tell stories about the creator and the quilts' owners.

Her grandmother's quilts were more functional than Richardson's art pieces, but quilts have often used reclaimed objects, inspiring Richardson's approach.

"The seed was totally planted by my grandmother," she says, recalling a quilt that included a scrap of her grandmother's dress. "That got me started looking at textiles in a different way, differently than going to the store and buying anything I need for a project."

Richardson has created numerous memory quilts for others. The process starts with the client sharing some items to incorporate in the quilt, and Richardson interviewing them about the items' importance.

She also creates "art quilts," including a variety of materials that had previous lives. One of these, a quilt depicting Paul Robeson as Othello on Broadway, is featured in the exhibit and book "And Still We Rise: Race Culture, and Visual Conversations."

"It is a graphically strong portrait," she says, and it was made with repurposed fabrics and discarded jewelry.

"There is something magical about taking disparate scraps or items that might have been overlooked and turning them into a cultural or historical or spiritual expression," she says. "This is what I love most about my work."

For more information, visit glendarichardson.com

From homes to furniture

The furniture-making duo Jodi Kurtz and Scott Atkins have only been working together for about two years. But in that time, they've made quite a splash, opening a new showroom in Frederick and outfitting restaurants, the set of an HBO show and private homes with their modern-industrial wood tables, benches and other creations.

About 90 percent of the wood they use for their work comes from old Baltimore rowhouses; the only new wood they use is locally sourced and "live edge," which means it is harvested from trees that have fallen naturally.

"Grabbing a piece of wood from the pile, you don't know what you're going to get," says Jodi Kurtz. "The process of taking that old hunk of wood that would have been in a landfill and creating a custom piece that will be around for generations is fantastic."

To collect the wood, Kurtz and Atkins partner with the nonprofit organization Baltimore Brick by Brick, which works with residents of the Milton-Montford neighborhood, deconstructing a block of vacant rowhouses and preserving the materials, with plans to replace the block with green space.

"It's exciting because we're able to tell clients the address the wood came from," says Kurtz. "It's a really tactile history. You can have a coffee table or farm table and see where the hammer hit the wood 125 years ago or where a nail scratched."

In addition to pieces built using wood from Brick by Brick, Kurtz and Atkins sometimes create commissioned work incorporating pieces of wood provided by clients.

"I really enjoy when residential clients contact us with, maybe wood they have from their grandparents' barn," says Kurtz. "We get a lot of clients who, when they renovate their houses, save the wood, and we create furniture. That for me is really fun."

For more information, visit kurtzandatkins.com

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