Gregg Lewis might not look or sound like an artist, but for years he”s been creative.
After he lost his job as parts and service manager at Templeton Dodge in October, he stayed home and laid low for weeks. Then a relative asked him to craft a bottle tree for her. People loved it, and he decided to start selling them.
Lewis, 31, has since gotten a new full-time job, working “at the bottom of the pole” for the city of Starkville, laying sewer pipe and water lines, but he has not stopped selling his yard art, at local festivals and through more informal channels too.
Lewis never received a formal art education. He just seems to be good at making beautiful things.
Where”d you go to school?
Starkville High School.
Then what happened?
I got in the automotive industry. I worked in the Chevrolet place … and ended up at the Dodge place, until last year. Templeton Dodge. And they went under, they went out of business. That put a hurtin” on me; I was making pretty good money. And when I did I started looking for a job and I found one but not making near as — I”ve been starting in a new field and, you know, a different line of work, it”s just, kinda had to start over.
When I kinda started doing this, my mother-in-law wanted a bottle tree or two and she was into it, so I said, “Well, I can do that,” you know, I”ve been around welding and all that my whole life. So I made her a couple. And, well, that big one out there was my first one. And everybody loved it. Everybody that saw it, they wanted one. I started sellin” em, to kinda supplement the income, you know, and worked out pretty good.
Then I started goin” to these shows, like Market Street, Prairie Arts and Cotton District — man, I just sell out every time, everything I sell. So it”s pretty high demand, you know? I got people calling me and ordering em. Kinda like pizza, you know? “Hey, can I get a bottle tree?” I”m like, OK, you know?
I”m really cheap. So I don”t really have a competition. I mean there are people that make ”em and sell ”em, but I”m so cheap that I don”t care, you know? I mean, I want everybody to be able to enjoy ”em. I”m not trying to make a fortune. As long as I”m doing OK and making a little bit of profit, I enjoy doing it, and I enjoy seeing my stuff out, and I get off when people say, “Man, that”s so cool,” you know, “that”s awesome,” “that”s beautiful.” I enjoy that. Or, “I”ve never seen that before.”
I enjoy money just as much as the next guy. But I kinda like the art side of it.
Why do you like the bottle tree style?
It”s pretty much I”ve seen bottle trees around for a while. And I could tell you that I showed one that my mother-in-law bought, and it looks like crap. I mean, it doesn”t look like a tree. And you see ”em, you know, you saw one on the ground over there, I think. Somebody made that. Somebody bought it. And it looks like crap. But mine don”t, you know? I just, I can take the metal and I can make it look like a real tree. You know what I mean? That”s the whole idea. When everybody else is sellin” these bottle trees, they don”t look like trees. You know, they look like metal straight things, where mine bend, and curve — I do all that by hand. I mean, I just about take my eye and look at it and add a little more bend to it, and all that. I guess I got a knack for doing it.
You have any trees in mind when you do that?
I do, some, because, that one you saw out there that she first started puttin” bottles on, that kinda takes the shape of a bush. Like, you know, in front of a house, a little bush or something. I do kinda mold ”em around some stuff.
But nothing in particular. And none of my trees look alike. I can”t make the same one twice. There”s no pattern, no mold. I do it all by hand and by eyes, however I feel at the time. I put my iPod on and, you know, get after it.
What do you listen to?
I like hard rock. Korn, See Through, Three Days” Grace — stuff like that.
How long does it take to do one?
Couple hours. Depends on how big it is, and if I don”t like it, I”ll whack it off, whack the limb off, and start over. But, you know, the end product is what I like.
How do you know how much to bend a piece of that metal?
I just feel it and when I hold it up there, before I weld it, I”m like, well, it”s too much. I”ll bend it back or — once I weld it and I don”t like it I can still bend it some and it”s just by sight.
I don”t know if it”s a gift, or just — we”re just talking about metal trees here. I don”t know how much of a gift it is, but it”s just something I can do, you know, something I”m pretty good at, that I enjoy, and that”s hard to find.
Are you thinking about making anything else?
Trellises, archways, you know. My mother-in-law wants an archway, a big old swooping archway before you walk into the woods out there. And I”m gonna make that. It extends off like branches for bottles to go on. So that you can walk and when you walk it”ll be colorful. And she could plant flowers or vines and then grow ”em.
How you get your materials?
Um, I just buy the bottles and the paint. And as far as the rebar, the metal, I just go to Bell Building Supply and buy it.
Do people ever ask you about those bottles, as in, do you drink them all?
Yeah, yeah. I get a bunch of silly questions like that. You drink all that out here today? You know. No, I didn”t drink any of em.
When you”re making the trees, what are you thinking about?
I just get into the music. A lot of times I”m just singing. You know?
I guess I”m really into where the next branch is gonna go, or how it”s gonna look, where I”m gonna position it.
What are the price ranges?
My small trees are $25, $35. My large ones are — standard tree is about $65. I mean, that”s very affordable, I think. (The largest one is $125.) And that sucker”s huge. Bottles are like $5 for the large bottles that I paint. A lot goes into ”em. I have to order the bottles, which is about $2 a bottle, and I have to order the paint, stained-glass paint. I rub ”em down with alcohol, then I have to spray ”em, let ”em dry. Then I have to cure ”em in the oven — it”s a big process. They”re waterproof and dishwasher-safe — supposed to be — and all that.
When you retire, do you see yourself making other things?
Yeah. And I”ve thought about that too, man. I”d love to. See, now I kinda have to keep it in what I think can sell. You know, I wanna make what I wanna make, but I need to keep it where I can get rid of it and make a little money off it, get my money back out of it. But I really would like to make some stuff that I don”t care if it sells or not. You know? I”ve got a couple ideas that I”d love to do, but just different stuff. It”d be big.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.
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