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Artist’s Corner: Q&A with Devin Johnson

Patch talks with local artist Devin Johnson about leaps of faith, pre-World War II harness leather and how to make bracelets out of an airplane.

Working exclusively with reclaimed and repurposed materials, Devin Johnson sees beauty where others see junk. He turns scrap metal and leather into wearable works of art.

He is an environmentalist by accident and an artist by nature. And in just over two years, Johnson has made a name for himself.

Patch had the opportunity to catch up with Johnson about how he got to where he is and where he plans to go from here.

Southwest Minneapolis Patch: When did you first start making jewelry?

Johnson: 2008. 

Southwest Minneapolis Patch: That’s recent.

Johnson: Very recent–not doing it my whole life or anything. It was the winter of 2008, maybe fall. It was a quick progression. I went full time in May of last year. 

Southwest Minneapolis Patch: How did it progress?

Johnson: I guess it’s a combination of things. The demand was there–I could tell the demand was there. I knew I could probably sell whatever I could make, so then it became a matter of could I make enough to support myself. I did the math and said, ‘Okay, I can do this.’

It progressed in the sense that I made a piece for fun, a leather bracelet, and showed it to a couple people. They thought it was cool, and then I made about 12 of them. I had them in my apartment and my roommate had some friends over, one was an artist, and she said, “What are these?” She asked what I made them for and I said for fun and she said, “I do art fairs and I don’t see anything like this there.” She also suggested Design Collective. I went down there and they said they’d take a look and for the first few months that was my only retail. Then I did the Green Gifts Fair and brought in $400 that day. I went to college for photojournalism so I do have decent photo skills–part of being an artist is that you need good photos to apply for art shows. I heard of the American Craft Council show, but I didn’t realize it was as prestigious a show as it was at the time. Somebody said, ‘You can apply for this’ and so I did and they said, ‘We’ll take you.’ I did a show there–my first actual art show was April of ’09.

I saw from that show roughly what I could make at an art show and realized I didn’t need to be managing a restaurant. I went back to work and asked if I could go to part time. They compromised with me and put me on a four-day-a-week schedule. I used that fifth day and all my other free time to make stuff and booked art shows.

Southwest Minneapolis Patch: Do you do work in any other art forms?

Johnson: I do accessories and wearables. I also do candle holders and clocks, little picture stands...The guideline with everything that I make is that it’s 100 percent repurposed. So if you’re looking at any piece, every rivet is handmade from wire scraps, every washer is hand punched from scraps–everything is from some previous component. 

Southwest Minneapolis Patch: Where do you find the pieces you use in your work?

Johnson: I go to scrap metal recycling centers. They are a little tricky to negotiate into; they’re not open to the public. The first attempt at getting into several of them was challenging. I finally was directed to one yard in Minneapolis and they said that should be fine. I formed a relationship with them and would go there once a week. I don’t use any steel so it will never rust. Everything is guaranteed for life; they’re virtually indestructible.

Ninety-five percent of my stuff came from there but then someone got injured there and they said that had to be my last day. That also happened to be my last day at the restaurant. So I went though the summer without a source, but I found another yard. I went to them and showed them my portfolio and what I do. I went in as a business. 

Southwest Minneapolis Patch: How about the leather?

Johnson: I’m still working off a major hoard from a farm auction I went to seven or eight years ago. It was a speculative buy. They had piles and piles of leather. It was all pre-World War II harness leather. I got a full pickup truck of it there. I’m actually running low on it at this point, but occasionally at flea markets I’ll find leather. My plan this year is to put an ad on Craigslist. 

Southwest Minneapolis Patch: Can you describe your process?

Johnson: It’s materials driven. Because I’m a reclaimed materials artist, I can’t make anything I can’t find the material for. What I will simply do is I’ll find materials that I think can be converted into jewelry, wearables, and work with them until I’ve learned them, so to speak. Once I understand the material a little bit more, I’ll start to put more of an artistic eye into it with things like decorations. The leather is designed pretty much 100 percent functional–the decorations on these are the clasps, it’s what holds it all together–so I don’t overly decorate. It’s all functional. So, it’s materials driven but also functional and keeping kind of an industrial eye. Virtually everything I use is the byproduct of something from an industry–farming, automotive, metal recycling. If you remember the fact that I’m not allowed to purchase anything, then you know I have to figure out a way to make it work.

Southwest Minneapolis Patch: Is the environmental aspect of your work a conscious decision or a byproduct of the aesthetic you’re going for?

Johnson: When I first started it, the environmental focus was not there as much as it was a challenge. And I liked working with reclaimed materials because of the history there. So I guess making the stuff initially with reclaimed materials was because it’s what I liked. And then I realized it was doable. Now seeing other artists that aren’t environmentally responsible, it’s like, ‘Why not?’

Also, with the license plate bracelets I’m doing a fundraiser this summer called 10,000 Plates for 10,000 Lakes. I’ll be trying to sell 10,000 of these made from Minnesota plates and for each one I’ll donate one dollar to the Minnesota Environmental Partnership. That will kick off at the Green Expo in May at the fairgrounds. When the program is done it will be a total of $10,000 donated to them. It will be a fun thing to do. With every one that sells, you’re benefiting the environment, you’re helping twofold. And that’s the big thing with reuse versus recycle. With reclaiming, you’re reducing the energy footprint dramatically. 

Southwest Minneapolis Patch: Where do you find inspiration?

Johnson: The materials. I was there at the scrap yard probably a month ago and there were sections from an airplane that someone brought there. I had never thought of making anything from an airplane, but I brought home a section of it and made some bracelets out of it. To be a bracelet, it only has to fit around your wrist. So that’s the first step–can I make this into a bracelet?

Southwest Minneapolis Patch: What’s next for Devin Johnson?

Johnson: The art aspect of it is just the start. I don’t plan on the company being purely that I go around doing 20 or 30 art shows a year and be in a few boutiques. I started as a business and I’m using the art as something that moves the business forward well and funds it well, but I want to get into a larger run where I’m actually producing products that are 100 percent reclaimed and are sold around the country and the world. This is trainable. I am the artist; I can design and lay it out. I’m still sourcing the materials and designing the products; it’s still my baby. I’m basically taking what was originally one of a kind–and it will always be one of a kind when you’re using reclaimed materials–the main goal is to get repurposed goods more into the mainstream. My goal is to move that into the mainstream focus so that it’s not so much of a novelty anymore–because it doesn’t need to be–and show other people that you can do this. The reason I could quit my job is because I’m using reclaimed materials. If I was buying copper at an art store it would be much more expensive, and [with reclaimed materials] you have a lot more character and story behind it.

Southwest Minneapolis Patch: Any advice for aspiring artists?

Johnson: Don’t treat it like a hobby. If you act like you are running a business and treat it like a business that’s still in line with your artistic values and principles, then you should be able to treat it like a business model. I used to work in numerous restaurants and run numerous kitchens. If you’re running a restaurant, you need to keep food costs below 30 percent. So, you need to ask yourself, does your art apply to a broad enough group of people or can you find a large enough group of people to support you?

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