Refinding and Redefining American Art

By Blair Jackson

The art world is buzzing in light of this week’s opening of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville. Featuring artists from the eras of American history, the museum is also showcasing the work of one local artist, not on its walls, but on the shelves of its gift shop.

When Sean O’Dell received a call from Crystal Bridges, he thought the museum had mistaken him for someone else. Recruited from the First Thursday’s Art Walk program, O’Dell will now be selling his unique accessories and furnishings to the visitors of the world-class museum.

Working from his home studio in Fayetteville, O’Dell incorporates vintage items into accessories and furnishings. Each piece is functional and funky; and more importantly, each piece is repurposed. O’Dell’s first piece now serves as his kitchen table. His inspiration came from two signs he found in Kansas City that hung below a billboard for years. In red and white lettering, one sign reads “6 Miles” and the other reads “Clean Restroom.” The edges are worn and the paint is chipped, but there is charm in the table’s quirky message and the bold color palette.

His creative interest in accessories was piqued during a trip to Australia where he found a cool, functional wallet. “Why don’t guys have cool wallets?” he asked himself, and the question sparked a series of wallets made of nontraditional materials. Using the thick tracks of tire tread, O’Dell made his first wallet. The artist was forced to rethink the project when he realized the material was too bulky to stay folded in a pocket.

O’Dell rebounded, using the rubber of the tire wall instead, and recycled the tire tread on the bottom of purses. The Refinding line now boasts wallets made of trading cards and footballs. The nontraditional materials of his accessories appeal to an array of people: those who are passionate about reusing, consumers who oppose animal products, and fans of Nascar racing and pop culture. A pile of torn Converse sneakers sits on his worktable. To most people, the pieces would appear to be junk, but the finished products — a Converse wristband and coasters made of the soles — are spunky reincarnations of the original product.

The great Renaissance artist Michelangelo is said to have envisioned figures within marble slabs, and O’Dell sees a future within the castoffs of pop culture: trading cards, boxes and road signs are some of the favorite elements of his work. The dining set on his front porch features a table layered in a mosaic of license plates and chairs made from passenger seats of cars. The cargo doors of a Volkswagen van stand as the doors to his TV cabinet. O’Dell says he draws inspiration from both his own creative well and the vintage pieces he finds at flea markets, junkyards and eBay. “When I get an idea, I see if I can find it,” he says.

The journey from inspiration to creation is sometimes a challenging one. O’Dell’s latest piece — a desk that uses a Chevy tailgate as the writing surface — took six months to complete. While measuring, sawing, wiring and sewing, O’Dell sometimes “gets stuck” in the process. He says it’s frustrating to have the perfect idea in theory, only to find the execution is not as simple. “I’m not an engineer,” he says.

Faced with the challenges of carpentry and engineering, O’Dell has never given up on a project. The next two Refinding projects are lamps — one made from Model A headlights and one made from flashlights — and though the sketches seem simple enough, O’Dell says he plans on wiring each flashlight to turn on individually. For now, the flashlights are in a box on his worktable next to the pile of tattered Converse sneakers.

The artist says there is something special about used items. “They’ve been somewhere,” he says. “Repurposing things makes people see things in a different way and gives them new uses.”

O’Dell’s work sparks interest in and celebration of discarded items found at flea markets and resale shops; and he enjoys sharing his vision with others. When he sells a piece, he knows his work has struck a chord with another individual, and he enjoys the positive feedback, saying, “Wow, you want this too? That’s really cool.”

Even with some of his work at the Crystal Bridges gift shop, O’Dell’s home is full of furniture for sale. He says he has no qualms about parting with his art because anything sold can be replaced with something new. “I have way more ideas in my head,” he says. Though the exposure at Crystal Bridges is an exciting opportunity for the artist, he says mass production isn’t in his sights. Part of the appeal of O’Dell’s work is that each item is one-of-a kind. It’s for fun, not made to order, so once sold, each item will be replaced with something new.

O’Dell views his relationship with Crystal Bridges pragmatically. There is no overhead, and the exposure is much higher than First Thursday on the Square. O’Dell also uses the Internet to sell his product. (Check him out at or follow him on Twitter @TheRefinder.) Unless his gift shop sales skyrocket, the artist will be keeping his day job. “If I could make stuff I wanted to make full time, that would be awesome,” he says. Until then, the artist will be filling his sketch book and searching the resale shops in his free time, refinding and repurposing castoffs of America’s past.

Categories: Galleries