MEET OUR MAKERS: A profile of beach glass artist Tracy Smith-Dengler

Meet Tracy Smith-Dengler. By day she toils as Manager of the Central Business Office for the Erie 2-Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES. But in her off hours she makes stunning, one-of-a-kind creations featuring Lake Erie beach glass.

Smith-Dengler fashions unique lampshades, vases, ornaments and decorative items from her finds and gifts them to friends and loved ones. There is something suitably poetic about repurposing random chunks of smooth glass discovered among the beach detritus then creating something useful and beautiful before re-introducing it in its new form.

She says she likes to put her art back out into the world, and has joined the organizers of the upcoming Fredonia Mini Maker Faire to help inspire a legion of local Makers.

“Most of the time I try to stay under the radar with my making,” said Smith-Dengler. “But I’d like to help us grow our Maker Faire and encourage others to participate.”

It might surprise you to learn Smith-Dengler isn’t a lifelong artist. In fact, she got her start less than a decade ago in an effort to honor the memory of a beloved friend who left behind an impressive collection of beach glass.

“It’s never too late to start learning something that really grabs you,” said Smith-Dengler. “I was already in my mid-40’s before I ever gave my craft a thought and have only been doing it for about five years. I find myself amazed at what I’ve learned and how far I’ve taken it in just that short period of time.”

Mourning their mutual friend, Smith-Dengler and a pal enjoyed some wine while reminiscing and brainstorming ways to keep her spirit alive through her love for beach glass. Eventually, a group of friends decided to take an art class to learn and explore ways to utilize the beach glass. It wasn’t for everyone, but Smith-Dengler was soon immersed in the pursuit of a new passion and hasn’t looked back.

“Once you find the thing that really excites you, you’ll find a way to work it into your life – regardless of all other constraints,” said Smith-Dengler.

Spoken like a true Maker.

MAKING IT HAPPEN

The inaugural Fredonia Mini Maker Faire, which is FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC, is slated Saturday, Oct. 22 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the campus of Fredonia. A variety of Makers will be sharing their talents in The Science Center and The Williams Center. You can meet Smith-Dengler there, admire her artistry and perhaps find your passion, too.

The event is a collaboration of Erie 2-Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES, MAKE magazine and Fredonia along with the generous support of the Northern Chautauqua Community Foundation, the Chautauqua County Region Community Foundation, the Chautauqua Cattaraugus Library System, Lumsden McCormick LLC, Kensington tech supply, Dell and the Phyllis and Lawrence Patrie Endowment for the Sciences.

MEET OUR MAKERS: A Profile of Woodworker Doug Mellors

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“As a kid, there was no skill that my brother and I wanted to learn that was off limits,” says Westfield resident Doug Mellors.

Editor’s Note: For the past few months, the organizers of the upcoming Fredonia Mini Maker Faire have been gathering with Makers from across the greater Chautauqua County region to plan the inaugural event slated Oct. 22 on the campus of The State University of New York at Fredonia. Makers are of all ages and represent a diverse range of talents that they want to share in the circus of creativity that drives the Maker Movement.

 

WESTFIELD – Meet Doug Mellors. He is a woodworker from Westfield who makes and sells home décor items fashioned out of reclaimed lumber. He also shares videos of his process on You Tube and Instagram and hails from a long line of Makers. He makes his own soap, grinds his own wheat and occasionally helps out on the family farm in Ripley, where his uncle still works and tends to grape fields and an acre of cold-tolerant loofah. That’s right – the ubiquitous bath item grown overwhelmingly in hot climates. By day, or by night, actually, as the schedule determines, Mellors works in community-based psychiatric assistance in Chautauqua County.

“It’s third shift and lets me do what I love,” he said, noting that traumatic brain injury is his specialty. “It was my passion.”

For several years, the 1996 graduate of Westfield Academy and Central School worked in Maryland, before a cancer diagnosis compelled him to return to Western New York in 2006. Before long, he was re-immersed in woodworking, a hobby he and his brother long enjoyed thanks to their father’s influence.

“Every healthcare worker can only work so many hours,” said Mellors. “When the power tools are on it kind of drowns out all the background noise. There’s not much else going on in my brain and it lets you zone out. It’s just you, a piece of wood and a tool. The other day I had six hours of serenity and sanding. It’s just that peaceful Zen time.”

About a year ago, Mellors advanced to a CNC machine, otherwise known as a Computer Numeric Control machine. It’s an automated device that can incorporate several different tools to manufacture a design.

“If you can dream it up and get it on your computer screen,” said Mellors, “It’s just a matter of carving it after that.” His CNC machine is a Shapeoko 3, which comes in a kit. Mellors assembled it himself, in the process gaining a new understanding of how it functions and the confidence to fix any problems that arise.

“Coming from the medical field, I’ve never worked on motors or engines or had that opportunity to know that intimately how that machine works,” he said. “I now have a whole new confidence in transferring those building skills to other things.”

Mellors uses rough-cut Amish and reclaimed lumber for his projects, which range from ring holders to plaques to wine racks and beyond. He and his dog, Jamie, work as a team, with his four-legged friend appearing in several online videos. (When asked what kind of dog, Mellors wryly replied “a white, furry one.”) His top seller on Etsy is something he calls the Garden Harvest Basket. They are made of all reclaimed materials.

“I did about 50 of those the first year and I sold them all. It was just a real simple project,” he said. “We had torn down a fence and had all these old wooden white picket slats leftover.”

Mellors started selling on Etsy because he ran out of people to give his creations to, because no one would take them anymore.

“My parents would lock the door if they saw me walking up their driveway with wood,” he said.

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Mellors shows off the contents in the trunk of his car. He always has slabs of wood and some tools on hand.

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A FAMILY OF MAKERS

As children, Mellors and his brother were encouraged to work with hand tools, power tools – whatever they wanted.

“As a kid, there was no skill that my brother and I wanted to learn that was off limits,” said Mellors. “My mom is an amazing crafter, knitter. She makes her own dyes out of plants. And my dad just makes stuff he needs. He is an old-school, true Maker who grew up on a farm. He makes what he needs and he’s happy with it.”

In the Mellors household, there was no such thing as a “boy skill or girl skill.”

“I was so lucky that my dad taught me farming skills,” said Mellors. “But my mom was a graphic artist so I just thought everybody knew how to do graphic artwork. She was so old-school that she had the first Mac II and the first green-screen Macs in her office. She worked at Belknap, once upon a time a huge printing company in Westfield. She went from using an Exacto knife up to the modern-day printing.”

The CNC machine makes most of Mellors’ designs and he has been making stamps – or block printing pieces – for her on it.

“I grew up with all these great, amazing skills,” said Mellors. “From just weird, random stuff that I’ve had the experience to work with.”

 

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Some of Mellors’ creations include decorative plaques, ring holders and his signature Garden Market Basket, which has proved a big seller on his Etsy site.

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You can watch Mellors make this piece on his You Tube channel.

 

THE LOCAL MAKER MOVEMENT

Mellors found out about the Fredonia Mini Maker Faire and the larger Maker Movement emerging in the Chautauqua County region the old-fashioned way.

“My mom told me,” laughed Mellors. “She said ‘Oh my gosh, have you seen this? You should go to this!’ She told me months ago and I thought ‘I’ll watch and see what happens.’ I’ve been following the worldwide Maker Movement for years and wanted to see if there was actually any steam to this local thing. She kept sending me links and eventually I thought ‘OK, I’ll go to a meeting.’ ”

Now his only regret is that it took him a couple months to finally attend a Maker Meetup and eagerly awaits future Maker events. Mellors says he loved that initial exposure to the Maker community so much that he attended a second Meetup. He has especially enjoyed striking up conversations with fellow Makers.

“I met a guy there – a teacher – and he said he invites people who’ve never touched a power tool before and he lets them do things for the first time and gets those tools in their hands,” said Mellors. “I’ve met some really cool people and you talk to Makers from different areas. I’d like to get all the Makers together and pick a project and spearhead it.”

INSPIRING YOUNG MAKERS

Mellors occasionally works with students and homeschooling families on a casual, unofficial basis. He also has a learning disability and can relate when children struggle academically.

“I’m dyslexic, so reading is painful,” said Mellors. “A lot of the parents want to show their kids that math matters. They wonder ‘Why am I ever gonna have to know algebra? How do I measure a 90-degree triangle?’ And I say ‘Well, let’s build a cabinet or a memory box for you.’ Then I show them how to apply these math skills to simple, everyday stuff and woodworking.”

Safety is of the utmost importance to Mellors.

“As a healthcare worker I’ve worked with people with all these brain injuries,” said Mellors. “Whenever I teach kids to use tools I tell them ‘at the end of the day I can give you another piece of wood, but I can’t sew your finger on.’ We’ll back up a step and take it again and I tell them ‘if there’s tools you don’t want to use, you don’t have to use them.’ ”

He also isn’t embarrassed when a project doesn’t work out as planned. In fact, he flaunts his success as well as his failures on his You Tube channel.

“I’m very proud of my fail videos,” said Mellors. “I put up blown-up projects on Instagram all the time. It happens – don’t get discouraged. You have to expect the saw to kick back or the wood to crack right down the middle in the middle of a project.”

He recently helped a local family build raised-bed gardens, teaching them how to use what tools they have at their house to accomplish the task. The skills will help with problem-solving and encourage them to transfer skills from one project to another.

Mellors focuses on imparting simple skills – learning the grains of the woods and how the density affects the speed of the process – before putting a piece of wood in the lathe.

“Those are just things you learn from doing every project I’ve ever done,” said Mellors “I’ve only had the CNC for nine months and I’ve done a lot of learning and some cool projects. But if I hadn’t been doing woodworking for so long my learning curve would be so much more painful. There’s a lot I wouldn’t know, like if you don’t have a perfectly dead flat surface your piece looks weird.”

Does making things come naturally to Mellors?

“I just think it’s easier for some people – everyone learns differently,” he said. “I learn by seeing and doing.”

You can meet Mellors, check out his work, learn some more about woodworking and perhaps discover a new creative outlet at the inaugural Fredonia Mini Maker Faire in October. You can also find Mellors on Instagram, Etsy  and watch him on You Tube.

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Mellors discusses his work at a Maker Meetup in July at the Erie 2-Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES LoGuidice Educational Center. He made some new friends, too. 

 

MAKING IT HAPPEN

The inaugural Fredonia Mini Maker Faire, which is free and open to the public, is slated Saturday, Oct. 22 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the Fredonia campus.

The event is a collaboration of Erie 2-Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES, MAKE magazine and Fredonia along with the generous support of the Chautauqua County Region Community Foundation, the Chautauqua Cattaraugus Library System, Lumsden McCormick LLC, Kensington tech supply, Dell and the Phyllis and Lawrence Patrie Endowment for the Sciences.

Sponsorship opportunities are still available for this exciting event. Direct inquiries to Public Information Officer/Grants Administrator Jen Osborne-Coy at 672-4371, ext. 2135 or josborne-coy@e2ccb.org.