Celebrating 30 Years of Functional Art
CHEVY CHASER MAGAZINE - By Rena Baer - January 2016
Mark Shawk figures there are two types of people in the world: those who turn lamps on and those who are turned on by lamps.
His business, The Lamp Place, at 662 E. Main St., has depended largely on the latter to make it run for 30 years. Filled with custom creations, his shop appeals to those who see lamps not just a source of light but as unique decorating touches or a means of personal and artistic expression.
Iron gears that once turned machinery in Kentucky’s manufacturing mills have been reincarnated as lamps. Repurposed clarinets and flutes, prized for the memories they evoke and the melodies they played, now are the conduits of light rather than music. A jockey’s boot, a memento of a racing career, is no longer sequestered in the back of a closet but rather galvanized into perpetuity as a lamp.
The possibilities are boundless, and to Shawk, that’s one of his favorite aspects of the job. There’s something about taking simple, even mundane, objects and making them into functional pieces of decor and keepsakes that makes him, and his customers, happy.
“You’re bringing these objects back to life for people,” he said.
Though he graduated college with a graphic arts degree, Shawk turned to carpentry for steady work in the job market.
The experience now provides the expertise to fashion wooden bases or turns for his new re-creations. In fact, Shawk still uses a 1930s lathe passed down to him from his grandfather, who worked for Westinghouse but who repaired clocks and sold antiques on the side.
“My grandfather sold antiques before people even knew what antiques were,” he said.
Shawk and his mother opened the original The Lamp Place in 1986 on Maxwell Street after his father died. A local hardware store had run a side business selling glass shades and antique oil lamps that had caught Shawk’s fancy. When the hardware store closed, Shawk and his mother decided to harness that sideline and clientele. After they opened shop, their business expanded into making and repairing all kinds of lamps.
“I always preferred working with my hands,” he said. “But I realized this [repairing and building lamps] was what I was going to do long term when I figured out it would also pay the bills.”
For Shawk, working in a stable, temperature- controlled environment beat being exposed to the elements as carpenter.
With the expansion of the business came the need to move into a bigger shop. Shawk said the current location on Main Street, where he moved 18 years ago after his mother passed away, was a very familiar spot to him.
“I went to school right across the street,” he said, pointing to what are now the Fayette County School Board administrative offices. “I used to look right out the window at this place all the time when I was bored in math class. It was a music store at the time, though it was built as a grocery store.”
The Lamp Place still has the ornate panel ceiling that was installed for J.L. Rue’s Groceries in the 1920s. Though now painted black, the inverse of its indigenous color (as evidenced by old photos that show a gleaming white store with rows of neatly stacked produce), the ceiling adds to the ambiance of the place, which itself has been repurposed and given new life over the years.
In addition to lamps, Shawk sells accessories that further personalize each lighting fixture. Curio cabinets of eye-catching brass, crystal and glass finials (the decorative piece at the very top of the lamp) add color to the shop, as do the multitude of pull chains that can provide whimsy, sparkle or gravitas to any lamp.
Shawk uses his days off in the summer to go hunting, or “pickin’” as he likes to call it. He travels all over Kentucky, combing through antique shops, flea markets or junk shops, looking for objects to create into lamps.
“As they say, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” Shawk said.
But the pieces-de-resistance for Shawk are anything but another man’s castaways. They are lamps fashioned from pottery made by Thomas Porter, who lives near Owensboro. Porter uses a 16th century Japanese fi ring technique called raku, which was once used to purify tea bowls for ceremonies. The pots are taken from the kiln hot, placed in a pot and finished with water. Porter also does horsehair pottery, which is pulled from the kiln hot and horsehair is placed around it. As the hair burns away, the carbon is absorbed into the clay leaving a unique, intricate design. Shawk uses Porter’s vessels to create the base of lamps that are, indeed, one of a kind.
“What separates me from the rest of the masses is the individuality of my lamps,” he said.
Sentimentality also plays a big part of his work, not only in what customers want made into lamps but also in what customers want repaired. A good chunk of business comes from fixing and refurbishing lamps that have been passed down from grandparents or given as a gift or hold some significance that takes finding a replacement off the proverbial table.
“I do a lot of basic repairs,” said Shawk. “And the term I hear most often is ‘sentimental.’ Sometimes customers almost apologize about how pitiful the lamp looks.”
But Shawk has solutions for that, too; he does brisk business replacing lampshades (he primarily sells ones that are hand-sewn and made in the United States). On a recent Saturday afternoon, customers darted in and out needing repairs, and several tried on diff erent shades for size.
“It’s like going shopping and finding that right piece of clothing,” Shawk said. “You know what fits.”