Sections

Richard creates as many as a hundred pieces a year and often consigns his children to help name them, as with “Reckless Driving Down Dirty Back Roads,” named by his daughter Sydney.

Brian Jolley

4.1.10

Dr. Seussland on Martha’s Vineyard

The whimsical home and studio of artist and furniture maker Richard Dunbrack

The dining room table is made from an antique sleigh. The porch furniture: a rounded, red, three-seater, Tilt-A-Whirl carnival carriage. The carved wooden post at the base of the staircase once supported a weather vane on a New England house that was being torn down, and is still adorned with vertical white strips of lightning cable. A hollow, circular, front-porch column has been converted into shelving displaying artwork in the living room; in the branches that “grow” out of the top of the column, a stuffed magpie keeps watch.

“That column sat in my studio for a long time,” says Oak Bluffs artist and furniture maker Richard Dunbrack, “until I finally said to myself, ‘I’ll build a tree in the house.’”

It’s like walking into the pages of a Dr. Seuss book. Found and salvaged items are everywhere both in and outside of the building – a metal jockey with a solar-powered outdoor light in place of a head, wooden propellers from vintage airplanes, a rusting tractor that Rich calls “yard art,” the top portion of a tapering, apple-picking ladder hung on a tall wall.

Flying around the country as a bush pilot, Rich fell into salvaging when he was a young man. When he would land in out-of-the-way locations, he explored demolition sites and took home wrought iron gates, sections of exterior molding, carriage wheels, and other bits of magical detritus.

“If what you put around your house has good vibes and good energy,” Rich explains, “how can you go wrong? It’s about picking up things that speak to you, that are good for the soul. You surround yourself with that, and you’re going to be a happy person.”

While some salvaged items stand alone, more often, Rich uses them to create furniture and sculptures both for personal use and for sale.

“Most of it,” he says, “is stuff that’s beautiful to look at itself, but I take it a step farther.”

In his studio, a dozen or more completed items wait to find homes. There are sculptures, armoires, cabinets, bookshelves, tables, and more – all colorful and whimsical, collaged old trunks, antique heating-vent covers, fence posts, cherub statues, you name it. Take, for example, the piece Rich has made into a hall tree: A tall sideboard with various posts, hooks, and shelves upon which to hang clothing or lay one’s keys and the mail, it is made from (among other things) a discarded door he’s attached to the back of a small chest. Small ledges across the top support a line of old Matchbox cars and trucks. Inside a tiny drawer at the bottom right of the cabinet are several marbles; place one in the back of the Matchbox truck on the far right, and you hear “shush, shush, shush” as the marble makes its way along invisible sloping tracks behind the hall tree’s back. Then suddenly – plop! – it comes shooting out of a train tunnel beneath a toy locomotive, circles across a shelf below, and disappears again in a hole between the V-ed legs of a Naughty Nellie bootjack, only to wind up back in the drawer with the other marbles.

And then there are the tall, grandfather-style clocks. Of the hundred or so items that Rich constructs each year, nearly half are clocks. Incorporating two-hundred-year-old clock faces – no two of which are alike – the clocks have new hands and modern operating mechanisms, so that when you open them, rather than finding weights and pendulums, you find shelves.

“There’s more utility to them than in regular grandfather clocks,” says Rich, adding that some people put them in bathrooms to house soaps or hand towels.

Many of his other pieces also contain working clocks. What is it with him and timepieces? When you visit his home and studio, you see his penchant for them right away: The large, windowless exterior wall of his house that faces the driveway is almost entirely taken up by a colorful, thirteen-foot-diameter clock face that brings Alice in Wonderland to mind.

“No matter how powerful you are, no one gets more than twenty-four hours a day,” he says. “Once you understand that time is your most precious possession, you choose more wisely what you do with it.”

An engineer and a former copartner in a defense subcontracting company, Rich, who is in his late forties, has no formal artistic training. (“I’m a left-handed dyslexic wonder,” he quips.) But for years before he became a full-time artist, he had been making sculptures and furniture from his salvaged items and selling occasional pieces to friends who saw them in his house and wanted something similar. After the Cold War, when the defense business began to slow down, he took a hard look at his life and realized that his job was “dry and boring.” He decided then to become an artist full time, and to his delight, within six months he found he could make a living from it.

As a former businessman, he takes a pragmatic approach to his artistic career. He prices work to sell (pieces generally range from $1,800 to $4,800). He sells directly from his studio and website, and also through galleries in half a dozen states. The uniqueness of each of his pieces, he points out, is also good for business.

“My work has a buy-it-now quality,” he says, “because it’s all one of a kind. If you love it, buy it, because I’ll never make that precise piece again.” He adds that this also “makes me a hard target to hit – if you want to copy me, good luck; I don’t do drawings for my work, it just grows out of the piles.”

The “green” nature of Rich’s work is an added bonus. Not only does he salvage and reuse materials that would otherwise be burned with fossil fuels or placed in landfills, but also, his pieces are more durable than a lot of contemporary furniture.

“It’s sort of forever stuff, heirloom stuff,” he says. “It’ll last for generations. The stuff it’s made from has already stood the test of time, some things for two or three hundred years already.”

Rich’s fascination with old things extends to the natural world. He loves stones, for example, and he’s built stone walls, granite benches, and stone walkways all over his property.

“When I bought this house,” he says, “there wasn’t any stone here at all. Now it looks like I’m trying to sink the Island.”

The house, which he bought in 1997 – and has been living in year-round (with his two daughters, when they are home from college) since moving from Concord in 2008 – is still a work in progress. Indicating a pile of large, brown, rectangular sandstone blocks by the side of the building, he notes that these, which will become the flooring of his outdoor shower, were once the footings of a front porch in a dilapidated house in West Springfield.

“Turns out that house used to belong to Dr. Seuss,” Rich says. “How apt is that?”

To see more of Rich Dunbrack’s work, visit his website at www.thethievingmagpie.com, or call 508-693-8395 for an appointment.

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