Trash to treasures: 4 Bridges artist upcycles metal from landfills into jewelry

Trash to treasures: 4 Bridges artist upcycles metal from landfills into jewelry

April 6th, 2014 by Susan Pierce in Life Entertainment

Alex Nelson solders jewelry in her Ooltewah home studio, where she rigged a work station by clamping an oversized magnifying glass to a wood 2x4. "It's funny, but it works," she says.

Photo by Erin O. Smith /Times Free Press.

The 4 Bridges Arts Festival patron pin is made of recycled titanium and aluminum. The design is inspired by a truss bridge.

The 4 Bridges Arts Festival patron pin is...

Photo by Erin O. Smith /Times Free Press.

"Companion Planting" by Karen Rudolph is a 4-foot wall hanging that mixes wood with recycled metal can lids.

"Companion Planting" by Karen Rudolph is a 4-foot wall...

If You Go

* What: 4 Bridges Arts Festival.

* Where: First Tennessee Pavilion, 1826 Reggie White Blvd.

* When: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday, April 12; 11 a.m. -5 p.m. Sunday, April 13.

* Admission: $7 one day, $10 two-day ticket, free for ages under 18.

New local artists in 4 Bridges

Six artists from Chattanooga are exhibiting in 4 Bridges Arts Festival for the first time. They are Alex Nelson, who designed the patron pin; Karen Rudolph, metalsmith; and four of the five Emerging Artist winners.

The 2014 Emerging Artists:

• Turry Lindstrom, metal

• Michelle Kimbrell, mixed media

• Michael Smelcher, acrylic paint

• Maria Willison, sculpture

• Liz Fuller of Nashville, watercolor

Source: AVA

More than 430 artists from across the United States applied to show at 4 Bridges Arts Festival - 143 were chosen.

Only six Chattanooga artists made that cut to get their first booth in the show, which opens Saturday in First Tennessee Pavilion. Ooltewah jewelry designer Alex Nelson, one of that half dozen, is not only making her debut in 4 Bridges, she also was chosen to be the festival's Patron Pin artist.

Such pins are given to corporate sponsors of the festival as well as people who buy $1,000 and $500 patron tickets, which give the buyer access to the preview party, a free weekend parking pass and VIP passes, among other goodies.

"We like to showcase someone locally because so much of the festival is national in scope," says Kathryn Dunn, 4 Bridges festival director for the Association for Visual Arts, which sponsors the annual spring event.

"Alex has not been in the festival before, but she had the ability to produce a large amount of quality work to show in the festival while also being able to produce as many patron pins as we needed for patrons and festival sponsors in a quick turnaround," Dunn explains.

Nelson says her pin design is inspired by the structural elements of a truss bridge. The arched design of recycled titanium and aluminum is an obvious visual reference, as well as a subtle metaphor on how the festival bridges the gap for those who attend 4 Bridges.

"In the 19th and 20th century a truss bridge was an efficient way of gaining access to new territory," she explains. The festival is a practical way for festivalgoers to discover new artists and work in 23 mediums that vary from glass, photography and acrylics to textiles, furniture and wood, she says.

As the pin artist, Nelson receives a free double booth in the show and will be exempt from the jury process and jury fee for the next two festivals, Dunn says.

"Essentially, she has an open invitation to participate for the next two years," Dunn says.

Nelson took a round-about journey to designing jewelry. She was a hardware store sales associate and taught high school Spanish before she began creating jewelry four years ago. Last year, she quit teaching to devote herself full-time to her art: the Spun Jewelry collection.

"I finally understand what Wayne and Garth felt like when they met Alice Cooper," she jokes, referencing a scene in the movie "Wayne's World."

But even folks unfamiliar with the irrepressible enthusiasm for rock'n'roll in the "Wayne's World" characters played by Mike Myers and Dana Carvey can sense that same passion in Nelson's jewelry. Her designs vary from the simple - bonding two or three recycled aluminum circles into pendants - to edgy - zigzagging dangle earrings resembling metal lightning bolts.

She upcycles discarded metal into accessories, but her designs also include paper, plastic, salvaged wood, brass, copper and other "post-consumer materials," as she calls them.

"In collaboration with my brother, Ethan Nelson and his business M&N Recycling, we give a whole new meaning to what most would otherwise consider trash," she says.

Nelson says even as a kid she was always crafting functional items from other materials.

"I love the limitless possibilities within jewelry design," she explains. "My first job was at a hardware store. I quickly realized that I was missing out being a cashier so I was constantly trying to find reasons to get out from behind the counter and explore the aisles. I would pick up pieces of hardware and attach them to hemp or leather cords. It would shock me when I would receive compliments because I was just trying to be thrifty."

Two years in the hardware store taught her a lot about materials, she says, and now, crafting something for herself instead of buying is "a powerful, free feeling."

Even today, she says, her designs are rooted in experimentation.

"My work has always been about making something from a material that already existed rather than using resources to create something new. I keep a notebook of ideas women give me. To the average person it looks like a scribble pad, but to me it is where my dreams begin."

Contact Susan Pierce at or 423-757-6284.