Reclaimed junk finds new life in Park Rapids sculpture garden

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?”

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

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