by Megan Smith
Baseball-bat stair spindles, paintbrush drawer handles, doors made of funky tin, and a sliding door made entirely out of colorful yardsticks. These are just a few of the whimsically beautiful features that out Houston artist Kiki Neumann has created for her repurposed artist studio. They’re also some of the unique objects that caught the eyes of judges in the 2014 Greater Houston Reuse Contest. On November 30, Neumann was awarded first place in the contest’s art and furniture category.
Neumann has been collecting and repurposing cast-off materials found on Houston’s streets for over 17 years. The first item she ever created, Neumann remembers, was a garden bench built out of Hurricane-ravaged backyard-fence wood. She had recently lost her career in paper sales and needed to channel her frustration into something creative. “It’s an understatement to say I was furious, and my mother wisely said, ‘Pick up a hammer, honey, and make something with your anger,’” Neumann says.
From there, she continued to use salvaged wood to make smaller creations, such as birdhouses and garden items. She estimates that over the span of 10 years, she has built nearly 4,000 birdhouses. “Let’s just say that I am not making any more right now,” she says. “Whew!”
When Neumann found herself with no employment prospects and fighting to stretch her money, she began to look on the side of the road for “furniture to paint, fence boards to build with—[I began] begging for cast-off tools and paint. It just amazed me that all sorts of friends, along with strangers that I met at festivals, had so much to share,” she says. “They were glad to help me, and a small craft/handmade business was born. I want to remind folks that this was in the mid-’90s and there wasn’t much consciousness about recycling. I was determined to change that mindset.”
In 2000, Neumann purchased a warehouse to use as a woodworking studio. After a few years of ownership, her friends encouraged her to build a second-story addition to make more space for other artists to rent and create in—ultimately creating six studios. “I invested more of my own money and went ahead with designing a working environment primarily out of secondhand found objects,” she says. “I just went to town creating an environment for other artists to enjoy working in.”
Neumann now works primarily with sign letters and scrap license plates—donating many of her creations back to the city. The Reuse Center, the Green Building Resource Center, and the in-progress Smither Park adjacent to the University of Houston all display pieces of Neumann’s metal letter work.
The artist was overjoyed upon hearing she had won first place in the city’s reuse contest, noting it brought tears to her eyes. “For years I was misunderstood about what I was trying to achieve,” Neumann says. “Folks kept saying, ‘Are you going to get a job?’ Now, to be recognized by my peers for creating something from nothing is a long-awaited taste of validation.”
The contest was coordinated by The Reuse Warehouse, a component of the City of Houston Solid Waste Management Department. Judges included Mayor Annise Parker, Solid Waste director Harry Hayes, and Dan Phillips, founder of Phoenix Commotion, a local recycled- and salvaged-material building initiative.
Neumann sells her work in local markets and statewide stores, and encourages others to buy handmade products from local artisans. She continues to participate in art festivals, galleries, and shows across Texas. “I just hitch up and go,” she says. “I feel like I have a new ‘license’ on life!”
View more of Neumann’s art pieces at kikineumanncreations.com.