- BY SEAN MCSTEEN -
There are those lucky few who are fortunate enough to know exactly what path they want their life to take from a very early age. No doubts, no questions, always pushing towards that ultimate objective. Every decision made and action taken is influenced by a deep-seeded ambition and understanding that the end result is exactly what they wanted from the get-go. And there are those who follow a different path; seeking out their true calling amongst the intertwining paths laid out before them, always alert and looking inward for a visceral connection to something larger than themselves. The amount of options and unknowns are both exciting and daunting, a combination that when harnessed, has the potential to become a driving force.
For Devin Johnson, artist, metalworker and owner of Makeshift Accessories, the discovery of his passion for metalwork holds its origin in a few different events. The first came one night when he was working as a manager of a Ruby Tuesdays while living in the Metro Area. The restaurant had gotten a shipment of black, plastic tongs for the salad bar to be switched out with the metal utensils that were being used at that time. So, rather than just throwing out the metal utensils, Devin took them home and built his first ever art piece: a small statue of a figure made entirely from the discarded salad bar tongs. That was the first moment. The second came when a local gallery took in the leather bracelets he had just recently begun making to be sold on consignment. Lastly, and possibly the most significant event for Devin during his artistic transition, was when he was accepted into his very first maker fair in the spring of 2009, which just so happened to be the American Craft Show (ACS). Put on by the American Craft Council, the ACS is one of the largest craft fairs in the Midwest, boasting over 250 different artists and makers. What probably felt like an intimidating endeavor to throw himself into, Devin quickly found that rather than artists and attendees questioning his presence at such a prestigious craft show, they thought he was lying when they learned it was his first ever maker event.
Looking back to that show and how it became the final push to change his path, Devin says, "the accolades and enthusiasm from other exhibiting artists (as well as attendees) from around the country and locally was the final push that cemented my drive to quit my job and do art full time. It took one more year to make that a reality, but I quit my day job three days before my 30th birthday and truly felt like I had stepped into a new phase of my life." Now, eight years after that fateful craft show, Devin Johnson still going strong, asserting himself as a driven, incredibly creative artist giving unmoving objects new life. And with a busy show season each year and his own gallery/workshop, Devin is long past the daily grind he endured while searching for his calling.
The gallery that he runs in downtown Northfield, MN highlights his passion as a true craftsman with his art and jewelry covering every available surface and spanning wall-to-wall across the long, narrow building. The brilliantly lit store welcomes you into Devin’s world and the sheer amount of beautifully crafted metalwork guarantees that a return visit is a must. I have visited the gallery on two different occasions; and while I tried to look at and appreciate every inch of the space, I am fairly confident that there were still things I missed.
It would be drastically underselling Devin’s creativity and artistic merit to say there are just one or two things that he specializes in. Yes, there are obviously best sellers among the pieces, but the range and variation from piece to piece runs the gamut artistically speaking. From speaking to Devin and seeing his work, it is clear that he feels no sense of limitation in regards to the things/art he creates. For him, there is always something new that can be salvaged, recycled and transformed into something beautiful. As Devin puts it, "it is the excitement of working with and exploring ever new and different materials." This is what makes Makeshift Accessories unique; every piece of jewelry and art is crafted out of metals and other materials that have been salvaged or found and reused in one way or another. There is absolutely no metal coming in fresh off the factory floor. Instead, the reused metal presents a larger challenge and an even bigger payoff, because as Devin explains it, "when you make something and you know where it used to be; that’s when it’s really satisfying. If you make something out of just a piece of metal that was designed to be made into something specific, it doesn’t feel like you’ve really accomplished much. It’s like putting together a model or a kit." It is Devin’s mission of sustainability and reusing quality materials for an entirely new, artistic purpose that makes Makeshift Accessories truly one-of-a-kind.
Having a background in and passion for both history and journalism, Devin takes his pieces a step further—or maybe back would be more suitable—than most, putting a strong emphasis not just on the final product ready for sale, but on the history and life of the physical object as well. For Devin, the past life of a material is just as important as the final product; and as he describes it, "the experience of working with a raw piece of history allows me to take an intimate view into the moment in time when that material was first created or altered to its present state." By putting so much attention on the history of the materials he works with, Devin explains that he is able to come away with, "a better understanding of the people that came before us and of the experiences they had and the decisions they made, which now shape our lives today."
To give me an idea of how deeply he researches some of the materials he uses, Devin showed me an old part he recently got that came from an aircraft that flew in WWII. He explained that with the standard military dated plate stamped onto it, he is then able to go even deeper and look into part catalog archives to find out exactly which aircraft the part came and what the specific part is. This kind of dedicated, tedious curiosity obviously creates a deeper value to the product—either emotionally or monetarily—but to Devin, his own fascination and admiration of the stories that objects carry is what drives him, not a larger profit margin. Holding up another piece of metal that also came from a WWII aircraft, Devin explains, "it’s just brass. I can get this at a scrapyard from a door or something like that and it’s structurally the same, but it doesn’t have the story. Where as this—I know when I’m holding this that this was in the air, it was transporting people and this is the time period it was occurring. So that’s the intrigue to me."
The history behind a material and the process of creation go hand-in-hand at Makeshift Accessories. Inspired by pieces of art crafted by unknown soldiers/artists in the trenches during WWI and WWII, Devin tries to bring a lot of the same hands-on methods to his own creative process. "One of my fascinations with trench art," says Devin, "was the ability to create these beautiful pieces using only rustic tools and materials available to them in a battlefield or war time setting. It was almost like the limitations of tools and materials actually fostered creativity."
Carrying this idea into his work at Makeshift, Devin and his team uses only a few different machines to help cut, stretch or bend larger pieces of metal, the majority of the work is done by hand (and hand tools). And because there are no high-tech machines or fancy equipment designed to simplify the process, each piece—whether it be a money clip crafted out of a piece of metal that came from a WWII bomber or a chess set with the pieces intricately created from many, many tiny metal parts—demands its own deeper level of respect. Even before getting a glimpse into Devin’s process, when I simply held a piece of his jewelry in my hands, I felt a different and somewhat indescribable sense of appreciation for it. It was as though, without having any prior knowledge of how the piece was crafted, I could see and feel the level of passion and effort that went into its creation.
It is Devin’s passion for the past while creating something completely new that makes Makeshift Accessories stand out as a unique gallery and workshop within both the Minnesota arts community and the arts community across the country and world. There is nothing created by Devin in his Northfield shop that is subpar or hastily finished. If it is not up to the Makeshift standard, it will never bask in the warm lights of the front-of-house gallery; and instead may again be salvaged for another purpose to continue the life of a metal object that will never know its own tale. And in this way, Devin Johnson is able to intertwine the preservation of the past with the evolution of the future, creating an intricate timeline and tale for an individual to find connection in. As Devin puts it, "I enjoy being, and am proud to be, a link in the chain which moves each piece and its rich history into the future for others to experience."