January 24, 2011 8:03:00 AM
Jan Swoope - firstname.lastname@example.org
Dale Talley admits it may have been all those Looney Tunes he watched as a kid. But something, somewhere, planted a seed for the fantastic.
"If Picasso made furniture, I hope it would look like mine," he laughed, standing among some of his whimsically wonderful pieces currently on display at the Rosenzweig Arts Center in downtown Columbus.
By day, Talley is a skilled craftsman working on the new Convention and Visitors Bureau building on Third Street South. But after hours, he becomes a sculptor in wood. Not just any wood. Discarded decking, broken fence rails, chunks of stair balusters and scarred work benches. Equally important in every piece he makes is what''s not wood -- old traffic signs, scraps of copper, insulators, thrown-off guitars, even a pair of vintage crutches.
The fact is, this mad hatter of the furniture world is a master of found objects.
"Eighty-five to 90 percent of the material I use is something someone threw away," said the native Californian. Talley lived in Columbus for about four years as a child and has, since September, been back in the Magnolia State, working and visiting with family.
Nothing escapes his notice. "If I''m awake, I''m in constant search mode," he stated.
The father of two grown sons chuckled, recounting one West coast outing with his wife, Pam, a nurse. The couple was hurrying across a street to a restaurant when Talley spied a tin pie plate in the road that "had been run over like 100 times."
The temptation was great. Pam tugged one way while the maverick carpenter tugged another, hoping to go back and retrieve what anyone else would consider garbage.
"I always get a kick out of people throwing things away and never dreaming they might end up in a chair in a show in Beverly Hills or Malibu," he grinned. "If they only knew ... "
A new bent
Talley''s adventure with furniture began 12 years ago.
"I didn''t start out to do this. Quite frankly, I didn''t know I had it in me," he said with candor. "One year I was broke, and decided to make some country cabinets for my mother and sister-in-law at Christmas. So I started doing those and kinda got hooked on it." Before long, though, traditional cabinetry wasn''t enough. "I started making the things I saw in my mind that I didn''t think anybody would like," he said.
The artisan''s process and products have evolved greatly since his first "bent" cabinets. "It''s been experimentation, a progression," he described, "especially looking back at some of my old-school stuff."
Once on the California art show circuit near his former Los Angeles base, Talley''s pieces began to draw notice. They even showed up from time to time in prominent places, like the set for MTV''s "Real World" 20th anniversary show, ABC''s "Extreme Home Makeover" and HGTV''s "Awesome Interiors."
The success solidified Dale''s desire to someday make furniture full time. Being closer to more fertile circuits in the East motivated the couple''s recent move, and will probably see them relocating again in about a year.
With a 97 percent sales rate to his credit -- Dale has made 525 pieces and has 23 to his name as of this week -- the dream seems do-able.
"I''ve had $11,000 shows and I''ve had zero dollar shows, but I don''t give up," said the craftsman, whose works are usually priced from $150 up to $5,000.
Whether sales are brisk or not, Talley would have to create. "Each piece is something I just feel I have to get out of me. It''s just there. I feel compelled to do this."
The rewards come in many forms.
"I love it when someone, especially an artist, tells me they''ve never seen anything like it," he shared.
Another favorite moment is when "someone stops by my booth at a show and they''re stopped in their tracks, and they get this look on their face. Then they start giggling and laughing. It''s almost like they''re in the shop with me, because that''s what I''ve done."
In the workshop
While Talley''s designs exude a spontaneity that seems charmingly haphazard, there''s nothing careless about the construction. Each piece is finished carpentry, structurally sound and completed with attention to detail.
"I literally use the same tools I use on a construction site; that plays a part in how it looks," revealed Talley, who usually has 10 to 12 pieces in progress at one time. Redwood and cedar are the artisan''s favored woods, and chairs are his favorite project. A large chair may contain more than 250 individual pieces of wood and require about three months to complete.
With such unique designs, finding the stopping point isn''t always simple.
"I never know what the next piece is going to really look like because I don''t know what materials I''ll find. ... I usually get to a point that I say, ''I''m done.'' Of course, I may say that three or four times before I stop," he smiled, "but I get there."
Redwood is easier to come by in California, but Mississippi has its benefits, too, Talley has discovered.
"There are some really cool materials down here in the South," he said, citing the siren songs of dilapidated barns, old houses and estate sales. "And the junk stores around here are amazing!"
His eyes light up when he talks of his passion. But for a moment, he grew more reflective.
"For a long time I had a hard time thinking of myself as an artist," he shared, conceding there are some elements of the art world he''s not necessarily comfortable with. "I look at life very plainly. I don''t like to play games, and I don''t like to think I''m better than someone else, because what do I have that hasn''t been given to me?" he added, acknowledging his natural gifts and his faith.
As the goal his sights are set on grows ever closer, Dale Talley is ready for the ride. Determination, at least, shouldn''t be a problem. That mangled tin pie plate? It ended up as the centerpiece in a one-of-a-kind table, sold long ago.
"I truly love what I do and it''s my goal to share this passion with anyone who is willing to enjoy it. ... I think if I were a painter, every brush stroke would be a piece of wood."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.