Collecting Cool Stuff for Creative Reuse

The word, “asylum,” brings to mind the setting for the Jack Nicholson film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Crazy things happened there, for sure. 

But another definition is “a sanctuary or place of safekeeping.” And, that’s how Ramona Brady and Jennifer McCormick view their shop, the Texas Art Asylum, located at 1230 Houston Avenue, on the near-downtown edge of The Heights. 

Their shop provides a sanctuary for the castoffs that some folks may see as trash until an innovative thinker comes along and rescues it for a “creative re-use.

"Local artists shop here for great finds, or Creative Resources for Artistic Purposes, while others with limited vision see only the acronym. Many come to the shop to dump — correction, “donate” — things they just can’t bear to throw away or those odd items that just won’t sell at a garage sale.

The Texas Art Asylum the kind of place you would seek out if you were embellishing a vehicle for the Art Car Parade or if you were building a three-dimensional collage called “assemblage.” There, you will find hundreds of wine corks, old 33 rpm record albums, doll heads and other body parts, gently used art supplies, picture frames, fabric and lace, buttons, cigar boxes, architectural surface samples, ceramic items, plastic toys from children;s fast food meals, books, magazines, ephemera and oddities. 

Some of the “oddities” people have donated have been a little bit scary and a little bit gross, the two business partners agree. But many of the goodies are too wonderful not to share.

Brady and McCormick cull many items for a separate location that caters only to teachers and non-profit organizations. The Center for Recycled Art is the non-profit side of the business that thrives in one room of the former Dow Elementary School at 1900 Kane Street, now leased to an organization called Multicultural Education and Counseling through the Arts (MECA).

Reselling junk as art supplies is a business concept that first emerged in other big cities with thriving art communities like San Francisco and New York and along the Eastern seaboard where landfill space is at a premium. But the Texas Art Asylum is a first for this area. Both Brady and McCormick were creative spirits who met as co-workers at a local electronic security company. Like Beatles Paul McCartney and John Lennon, theirs was an instant, collaborative friendship. 

“I’m the cute one, and she’s the good talker,” said Brady, who likes to make art with rusty things, while McCormick is drawn to fiber arts.

“There has to be a place to get genuine old stuff to reuse,” Brady said she remembers thinking.

Finding no such place in Houston and fed up with working for someone else, she and McCormick quit their jobs and started their business in 2010. “Our experience was not on the cash register side of the business, but more on the shopping side,” Brady admits.  

Husbands, friends and other family members just didn’t understand, and neither did lenders.

“If this idea could work in Houston, there would already be one,”  male bankers told them when they applied for SBA loans.

So, they decided to pass up outside funding and launch their dream on a smaller scale. Acquiring a larger space for short-term studio rentals and a gallery to display their customers’ art is on the “someday” list for these two ambitious entrepreneurs.

For now, the 501(c)(3) status enables them to apply for grants, and hosting art classes and birthday parties helps the revenue stream. Brady still does some consulting on the side, while McCormick is the only one on the shop’s payroll. 

“The store pays for itself, and it’s paying for one of us — at subsistence level,” Brady said.

There are other rewards, they have discovered, but not as much of the free time they thought they’d have to make their own art. Instead, they spend a lot of time cleaning, sorting and stocking merchandise, but they take time to marvel at what they call “magic meetings in the cycle of life.” In addition to five rooms full of fun stuff, they’ve collected many serendipitous stories about people they’ve met and wonderful connections between artists and materials. Just knowing they’re helping to creatively recycle things that would otherwise be thrown away is its own reward, they said.

Deborah Quinn Hensel is a free-lance journalist and staff reporter for Houston Woman Magazine.

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