WHAT ELSE The Other 'Stuff' We Find
by Steven Libbey
The Hunt for the trash of yesteryear is an adrenalin laced treasure hunt. The feeling of shoveling out that last little bit of fill as you enter the trash layer of a privy or the jubilation of feeling a solid object down in the mud that shouldn’t be there then realizing it is a bottle AND feeling embossing up and down the side has to be something akin to what a drug user feels when they get high. That feeling is just so addictive. For those of you who don’t know join us on the club hunt this spring.
For every one bottle rediscovered we find countless ‘lesser’ treasures. From car batteries to old butchered animal bones to plastic bottles to all sort of metal objects. Our diving has resulted in thousands of pounds of lead being removed from area lakes, hundreds of pounds of plastic and countless treasures. Peter Maas has an antique set of dentures and bone toothbrushes in a very premium display cabinet space, Steve Hochhalter has chunks of slag glass found at the old Chase Valley and Wisconsin Glass site out for all to see and Jim Koutsoures has piles of broken antique glass decorating his yard. And me;
A one of a kind pot metal Schlitz Globe found scuba diving the Milwaukee River is a piece of dimensional or sculptural art prominently displayed in our home. A pewter clock base, a super crude hand carved boat, a change purse with silver coins and huge copper tea pot my dive buddy Jim Koutsoures found scuba diving round out the dimensional art pieces I can see from this vantage point as I write. Our house is very discretely decorated with primarily fine art so any stuff or treasure I introduce into the house has to at least not be objectionable to Draga’s (my wife). We get a lot of compliments, even been asked who our interior decorator is a number of times so ‘stuff’ can have broad visual appeal if done right.
Some of my treasures have been recycled for more than just display. Giving a find a whole new lease on utilitarian life is a joy for me. Even better than seeing treasures on display is integrating them usefully into life. The opportunity to tell what treasures are and where they came from affords the opportunity to invite people who will never join the’ treasure hunting’ world to experience the interest through things I found. It is fun to see real excitement and wonder as I explain where the stuff came from and listen to people speculate how or why this stuff ended up where I found it. The perspective of people totally removed from ‘treasure hunting’ as to what an unusual object was used for, who used it and why it was deposited by some non eco friendly person years earlier in the water is fascinating. I have a big copper water basin I found scuba diving now used to hold firewood. There is nothing like it. People see the heavily etched copper and think out loud, wow that is cool.
My absolutely favorite utilitarian recycle of ‘hunt found’ treasures is my laundry room floor, laundry room sink-deck and half bathroom floor. The tiles I used were found under water in front of the old Draper Hall Hotel in Oconomowoc. The Draper Hall burned in the 19th century. A lot of junk ended up thrown in the lake. I found a mass of slate tiles years before my wife and I built our home and thought, “If I can ever find something to do with them I will come back and get these.” When we started building I told Draga I wanted to use tiles I thought were roof tiles from Draper Hall on our laundry room floor. She said, “Uh no, we are not putting stuff you found scuba diving on the floor of our new home.” I decided to go get some tile and see if I couldn’t change her mind. The tiles are thick purple with grey spotted Vermont slate with rough mill marks in them from chipped mill teeth. Many were broken but the tiles were roughly a foot wide and up to three feet long. Crude yes BUT SO COOL. The edges of the tiles that would have been on the outside roof edges are hand chiseled. I laid out the design on an exact dimension of the laundry room floor in the garage for Draga to see. See took one look and said, “That IS cool, okay you can use it.” Later I put in a very cool recycled sink from my brother and used the fancy edge pieces that were broken as the top. I sort of assembled them together to make an artistic laundry room sink setup. In fact, I will argue it might be the coolest laundry room sink-deck anywhere. It’s literally a work of art.
Next it was on to our half bath. We got an insanely cool cast bronze sink, again from my brother Greg, and decided to make an amazing half bath for our guests. We found handmade French tile we loved for the walls. But then could not decide on floor tile. Nothing seemed right to go with the wall tiles, the space we had and that sink. Draga this time said, “Could we use the left over slate from the laundry room?” I would never have asked thinking I had been lucky to get it into the laundry room I cut an outside boarder out of longer broken pieces then cut two by two inch pieces to make an inside row of tile then a one inch boarder and last six by six inch tiles on the inside. I even inlaid a couple of the French tiles around the perimeter to tie the floor to the walls. There is a lot more to the story… Ask when we have time to chat or just wait until I write a piece exclusively about the tile.
The last kind of treasure I find or ‘make' is pieces I turn into decorative art. Recently I found an unheard of rare flower decorated 4 gallon Maxfield jug. Yes it was broken. What's new? Still, this time I found one piece with most of the cobalt flower and a cobalt 4. I glued two hangers on the back of it, ran a wire between them and hung the 150 year old painting from an unknown Milwaukee artist in our kitchen. People who would never look twice at a crock or jug find it fascinating. Rounding out this category is my newest sensation and one I am very excited about. I have found hundreds of castings, mostly broken, and all sorts of odds and ends like propellers and horse shoes scuba diving. Recently I met an artist, Michael Nolte of Milwaukee. His foundry is famous for casting the Bronze Fonze and the mermaid on the Milwaukee River Walk. Mike makes his own sort of avant-garde bugs, creatures and plants out of old metal objects and odds and ends. I have commissioned Michael to make a flowering propeller tree using various parts. He is an artist and the design will be whatever he makes of it. The parts he took to use include five brass propellers, two aluminum propellers, a stainless propeller, a twelve foot ¾ inch diameter solid stainless steel rod, an old ornate storm sewer cap, a huge tangle of copper wire, some knob and tube wiring decorative insulators and a truck full of ‘stuff'. Mike is also is using a big piece of 1/8th inch thick stainless sheet stock for leaves. It came from purchasing a restaurant and gutting it for our business. The piece will take a couple of months but when I get it back I'll post it on the mrbottles website for all to see. Honestly I can't wait. Mike calls his art, "Ultimate recycling."
All of these pieces having nothing to do with bottles or advertising collecting and everything to do with bottles and advertising hunting/collecting. The hunt brought them all to the surface.