PARK RAPIDS, Minn. — The artwork displayed in a sculpture garden at the Hubbard County Developmental Achievement Center’s thrift store in Park Rapids, Minn., are the work of one person.

Whether shaped like people and animals, or just to as an arbor-arch to enter the viewing area, Clayton Johnson’s sculptures show that things people throw away may still have life in them.

The materials Johnson used are leftover items from area thrift stores. He spent a year and a half creating his sculptures before they were installed last September.

“All the materials were gathered, donated,” Johnson said. “They’re things that didn’t sell at Salvage Depot or at the Tin Ceiling or Bearly Used. They’re all things that they had on the shelves for a while, or they didn’t see that they could sell, and they were all in a big dumpster.”

To start, he took the whole receptacle home and started “dumpster diving,” asking himself, “How am I going to put all this stuff together?”

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Clayton Johnson's scrap metal characters, made from donated items that the Hubbard County DAC couldn't sell, include a Native American inspired figure and a person walking a pet. (Robin Fish/Enterprise)
Clayton Johnson's scrap metal characters, made from donated items that the Hubbard County DAC couldn't sell, include a Native American inspired figure and a person walking a pet. (Robin Fish/Enterprise)

The arbor-arch was one of the first concepts that came together, he said, because he wanted a contained area that people could enter and experience the things around them.

Then “they showed me the school bench, cast iron pieces that were all rusty and corroded,” he said, pointing out a seat in the area. “I cleaned them all off. It’s reclaimed wood that we put on there.”

A rule he set for himself was “to try to keep things as intact as possible,” he said. “I could have cut the metal up into little pieces and built an absolutely perfect form, but that wouldn’t show what this place is. So, I tried to reuse things in a way that you can say what it is, what it’s from.”

For example, he found a hand-truck that had been cut in half and discarded, thinking, “This could be a torso. Then I thought, what am I going to use for feet or legs?”

Clayton’s wife, Laura Johnson, is the executive director of the Hubbard County Developmental Achievement Center. She said it has been fun to watch and listen as people visiting the sculpture garden react to the images they discover.

The kneeling figure on the left has spark plug eyes, saws on its back, a shovel head, and jumper cable clamps for hands. The "barbecue ninja" next to it was built out of kitchen items, including a hibachi grill. (Robin Fish/Enterprise)
The kneeling figure on the left has spark plug eyes, saws on its back, a shovel head, and jumper cable clamps for hands. The "barbecue ninja" next to it was built out of kitchen items, including a hibachi grill. (Robin Fish/Enterprise)

She called turning old things into something new “a big part of our program.”

Besides giving surplus items a second life, Clayton said, “It also goes that step beyond and lets you use your imagination and think, ‘What could it possibly be?’”

He talked about “trying to give (the sculptures) character, like they’re looking somewhere,” or like a humanoid figure is holding a leash and walking something that “doggish type of figure.”

“People can use their own imaginations,” Laura said. “He didn’t make it so that it’s obvious. They can establish what they want. But he kept all of these things out of the landfill.”

How to make recognizable characters out of things that, at the same time, remain recognizable in themselves, is a problem that perhaps only an experienced artist can solve.

Clayton took some art classes in college, but he didn’t major in art. Instead, he worked toward becoming an intensive care unit nurse.

His art studies helped him develop a concept for sculptures that viewers can recognize as characters, with a little imagination but that, at the same time, reveal what they were made of.

Among the details built into the sculpture garden's arched entrance are a pair of whimsical birds whose bodies and wings are formed by napkin dispensers. (Robin Fish/Enterprise)
Among the details built into the sculpture garden's arched entrance are a pair of whimsical birds whose bodies and wings are formed by napkin dispensers. (Robin Fish/Enterprise)

“In some of my drawing classes, they talked about gesture drawings,” said Clayton. “I thought about, ‘What about gestures in steel?’ These are kind of more suggestive of the figures, and not absolutely perfect things.”

Some of the scrap metal characters in the Salvage Depot’s side yard include a “barbecue ninja,” made from an old hibachi and other kitchen gadgets, and wearing a rotisserie skewer on its back by way of a sword.

For a kneeling figure’s head, he drilled the wood out of a broken-handled shovel. But when it came to the figure’s shoulders, he said, “I thought it was more fun just to leave those broken handles on the saws.”

A metal garbage can forms the torso of a creature Johnson describes as “like a Dalek and R2-D2 had a baby” — for those familiar with “Doctor Who” and “Star Wars.”

Two birds perched on either side of the arbor-arch started life as tabletop napkin holders.

“At first I’m like, ‘What on earth am I going to with these?’” Clayton said. “Then I was opening them, and those kind of looked like wings, and I went from there.”

This rolling garbage can robot, like a cross between a Dalek from "Doctor Who" and R2-D2 from "Star Wars," may need a few repairs after suffering damage while on display. (Robin Fish/Enterprise)
This rolling garbage can robot, like a cross between a Dalek from "Doctor Who" and R2-D2 from "Star Wars," may need a few repairs after suffering damage while on display. (Robin Fish/Enterprise)