Artists: Jeff and Bryn Cornett
This marks the second in our Artist series, you can find the first here. The series sets out to find and showcase local artists of every kind to draw attention to the culture and craftsmanship that can be found in the Dayton region and to help provide a voice, even if a small one, to these creative minds as they grow their careers. This month's feature are Jeff and Bryn Cornett, founders of Victory People Church and Urban Wood, a restoration and upcycling company that uses historic wood recovered from around the Dayton area to make various home decor items. Their primary focus is Clocks, but I followed them as the worked on a couple different projects including some art display stands for an upcoming gallery.
"So my grandfather grew up in what he calls a 'holler' in Kentucky. He was the oldest of 13 kids, they were farmers. He dropped out of high school to help work the farm and hunt for food. His father (my great-grandfather) was on his way home one night riding his mule, no joke, and was waylaid by moonshiners because there were all these land feuds going on: almost like a Hatfield McCoy kind of thing, like backfields Kentucky kind of stuff. My great-grandfather was shot and killed by these moonshiners, and my grandfather came along and found his Dad dead. So he, right away, had to take over the farm: he wasn't more than 16 or 17. His name was John Phillip Marshall Cornett, almost like John Wayne or something. He carried a gun for a long time in case he found the men who killed his dad."
That's Jeff talking. Jeff's grandfather was a bricklayer, working hard for his living. Jeff tells this story of a man who grew up in a lawless land with a sort of sombre respect. A legacy that, while humorous, is a very real representation of a man who made something out of nothing.
Jeff tells me this story (with several excited interjections from Bryn) in a busy Starbucks on what was my third visit with them. I had spent two other days with them prior and it was clear that this story and this hands on, down to earth, approach was a keystone in their new upstart: Urban Wood, a business that was the brainchild of Bryn and her mother Karen. Urban Wood is all about reclaiming pieces of the past and working to make them new.
"I'd been thinking for a while I wanted to do something creative, you know: repurposing, reclaiming. I've had the hobby forever, I'm kinda a thrift store junkie: finding cheap furniture at thrift stores and fixing it up. Right now my basement has like seven pieces of furniture at various stages of refurnishing."
That's Bryn, I asked how they had originally developed the idea for Urban Wood, she went on:
"So, I had been looking for a way to channel my interest into something that we could sell. We had tried a couple of ideas that didn't really work out: but the clock idea came from my mom-in-law. She wanted a wall clock for her dining room, so we went out shopping for her her birthday and they were all like $150-$250 bucks and they were awful! (Laughing) like pressed cardboard, and it made me mad! I was like 'I could make something like this'!
"So I went over to my mom's and we started putting a plan together. In fact, she had recently recovered some wood from her neighbor's 1920's tudor home on Glendora avenue. They had pulled all the original wood flooring and just thrown it on the road, so my mom and dad had already picked that up and had it in their basement to put down in their kitchen. So we used the scraps to make Jeffrey's mom a clock, which eventually became our 'Glendora' model. "
"Yeah, she get's really passionate about how expensive things are for such low quality, and decides she'll just do it herself" says Jeff, laughing, "That just kinda bleeds into the vision the way we want to do things with our lives, but also teach people around us: that you don't have to accept slapstick stuff. Like, no one works with their hands anymore: I grew up building fences and doing landscape work. There's just something, like a good kind of pride, in working with your hands."
Bryn: "I think one of my two favorite things about the whole Urban Wood thing is, one, the historical value: You know, celebrating the culture and the history of Dayton and the stories behind the wood, that's the most exciting part I think. And the wood hunting! But the second part is the whole reclaiming thing, I think that goes along with Victory, our church: the idea of making old things new, or salvaging cast-off neglected things and saving them for a new purpose and a new value. There's a lot of salvation themes here.
Jeff: "I think that a result of us doing that kind of thing is that our church is full of this kind of stuff: all of it's reclaimed stuff, so like looking and seeing stuff that somebody else would want to throw away. I think that goes for the City as well, we're not from here originally: but we're coming in like 'we live here now', so buying into this city. This is a town that has seen some hard times, but is full of people who have worked really, really hard and then all the sudden things have been taken away from them: so appreciating the history of this place and how hard people have worked to make a life here is really important to me when it comes to the business. Looking at the wood that has been reclaimed and seeing worth in it is like looking at Dayton and saying 'it's worth fighting for', it's just going to take the people who are going to put the hard work into it."
"I had a friend who said 'Dayton Ohio, the place where you go for your dreams to die' he was moving to California or something, but to me that's so cheap: you're giving up having to work hard for something and giving up something that could be really rewarding for the glitz and the glamour of something eazy"
"The history of things is the best part of this for me, I just like history; but I don't feel like there's enough appreciation for the past in our culture at all. People have such an attitude about how outdated it is: but I think there's so much to be learned. Just like going out to that barn and getting that wood and the idea that they actually took trees and and had to hand plane all that wood and they built two barns and a home out of nothing and it's stood for 150 years. We had all these power tools and it was hard enough to get it done"
Bryn: "Jeffrey gets all excited about the people and saving the city and all: that's certainly grand, but I really like the challenge of trying to recreate something you'd see at anthropology or something on a realistic budget. Like real life: like picking between a clock or groceries, something that you can do both. He gets to tell you about saving people: I get to tell you about saving money (laughing)
Urban Wood is, right now, made of only four employees. Bryn, whom Jeff describes as the heartbeat of the business "the creative mind behind everything". Bryn's mom, Karen, (who has all the tools) does the building
"My dad doesn't even know how to work the thing" Bryn tells me "But we call him our picker: he finds us wood and gets us into the markets and stuff"
Bryn does the finishing: painting, staining, et cetera; and Jeff does all the PR and graphic work. or, as Bryn's dad tells me while we're taking down the barn, "Jeff does all the stuff with instagram or whatever".
"I have to go ahead of my father-in-law and explain to people what's going to happen, like 'this random old guy is going to show up with a truck and start pulling stuff out of this dumpster'. It's really funny, people ask you what you're going to do with this wood and you start giving them the shpeel and they're like 'oh...I think I'm going to use that'. No you're not! you're just going to throw it away"
That's not to say that they only stick to one job. The work, especially finding and retrieving wood, is hard work and everyone helps out.
Jeff: "I think a lot of people really appreciate what we do because of the history aspect: there was a mother that walked by the first time we were at the farmers market with her daughter. She was a 'lady of means', so she probably could have brought any of them, but we started telling her about where they were from and she found the one that was made from Peach Orchard playground wood and she was like "oh! I used to play over there when I was a kid! and my kids played there" and she bought one, and ordered another one!"
This piece of historical restoration is not limited to playground wood from Peach Orchard drive or the flooring from a house on Glendora Avenue. I asked Jeff and Bryn about the process that goes into the building of one of their clocks or any of the other things they're slowly branching into: as you'd probably expect: finding wood is the first, and the most important, step in the process.
Bryn: "We're kinda always on the wood hunt. Put that in your blog! (laughing) we'll take any wood: we can use it! We're not above dumpster diving, in fact just yesterday Jefferey was standing in the dumpster of Gerstner and sons tool chests over on the west side! We scavenge, even if it doesn't have a great history we can use it for the backing, everything is repurposed. We have used pallets, they're not our favorite, but we use them. For example, we had some pallets from the RTA bus stop, which is kinda interesting because it's like central to Dayton, but I'm kinda sick of pallets. We look on Craigslist and stuff, but it's mostly just word of mouth.
"Of course the quality of the wood and the story of the wood all goes into it. Actually, we just got some wood originally from the Dayton Motorcar factory downtown and... It is nice wood! It came out of an old wooden cage elevator in the shaft! It ended up being tongue and groove: it's like 130 years old and the tongue and groove still fits together perfectly! but really we'll take any wood"
I'll note that some of their wood is from the last tree planted by John Henry Patterson, the founder of NCR, which was recently cut down.
After we get it it's all taken to my Dad's back yard, so in the middle of Oakwood is like this Lumber mill in my parents back yard, the saw going back there all the time (laughing). We sort through it there, figure out what's good for clocks, and for backing; and what's just good for other projects. You keep certain pieces for special orders.
Jeff: "After we've picked the wood it's a process of [Bryn] creatively thinking through what wood goes well together, and what will work"
Bryn: "it's almost like a puzzle, usually my Mom heads this up, it's amazing how they'll eventually fit together. Once we have it picked we'll jigsaw it into shape and then route a spot in the back for the guts."
Jeff: "Even with power tools it's a very hands on job, there's no big equipment"
Bryn: "Yep, and then they send it to my basement!"
Jeff: "the art department!"
Jeff describes Bryn's creative process as very intuitive "Then she just goes through, sometimes the wood lends itself to a certain look: maybe it's got lots of grain so you want to stain it. Or she experiments with putting certain things together, like putting paint in water: almost like it's a whitewash."
"yeah, if you cut your paint with water it's almost like stain, it gives it a more aged look: I usually cut my paint with water"
After the finishing is done Bryn hand paints the numbers or roman numerals on the clock. They've tried other stenciling or spray painting methods, but they found that doing it by hand really works best.
"it's time consuming, and very tedious (laughs), but there's something about it, they all come out looking unique!"
Once the pieces are done they're outfitted with an info tag that tells the story of the wood and where it came from.
Jeff's grandmother is the illegitimate child of a circus pilot, who was raised by her grandparents and didn't know it until she was almost an adult: a perfect complement to a man who hunted for food and whose father was killed by moonshiners. People who overcame difficulties and challenges in order to start a life. That backstory is at the core of who Jeff is and, ultimately, what Urban Wood is all about: working hard to restore not just old forgotten wood, but an old forgotten city, one clock at a time.
Urban Wood can be found on facebook at www.facebook.com/urbanwooddayton and on Instagram, Jeff and Bryn take special orders, or can be found at various farmers markets and events around the dayton area.