Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, December 26, 2014

Creating something out of nothing

River City Roundabout

When you see this sign on River Street, you’ve found Tangerinas. - (Photo by David Laprad)

Someday, after entropy has reduced the universe to scrap, it would be nice if the owners of Tangerinas could be there to pick through the pieces and make something beautiful out of them again.

Nicole Griffin, one of the owners of the art gallery, likes to put on her gloves and hit the salvage yard. She doesn’t see piles of rusty machine parts and discarded junk, but bits and pieces of letters that can be repurposed and assembled into a word or phrase and then turned into art. She doesn’t see the bent forks, frayed paint brushes, and broken shower knobs for what they are, but for what they can be.

And like all good artists, Nicole has a knack for bringing what she sees in her mind’s eye to life in a way that touches others.

Located on River Street amid the trendy shops that border Coolidge Park, Tangerinas offers a treasure trove of Griffin’s work. One piece by the sales counter catches my eye. On what appears to be a panel from an old wooden cabinet, Nicole has used a number of different items to spell “Create,” including a bent hose, part of a tool of some sort, a drawer handle, the business end of a jumper cable, another drawer handle, a wooden spoon, and an inverted “3” from a house number.

As I recognized the different things she used, I smiled. This isn’t a mass produced decoration, I thought, it’s an original work of art that can give a room life.

There are dozens of similar pieces throughout Tangerinas, all saying something different about love, faith, and even living in the South. I especially like the two robots, which Nicole assembled out of a diverse selection of items: she used an old light from Coolidge Park for the head of the boy robot, and gave him a paintbrush for a sprig of hair. A saw blade functions as one of the girl robot’s two “blessings,” she says. The two can even hold hands using what appears to be a pair of old shackles – “if they haven’t been fighting.”

I could see customers fighting over the intricate work that spells “Chattanooga.” Griffin started building the piece by placing a shower knob and a door knob where the o’s go and expanding from there. A fork and a paint brush are among the other items secured to a repurposed window shutter. “I like to think about how someone once used those things,” she says.

Customers need not wrestle over any piece, though, because Griffin takes requests, and makes them on site in a workshop adjacent to the gallery. “I like to watch our customers grow,” she says. “One girl asked me to make a sign for her boyfriend while they were dating and then another one when they got married. Now she wants me to make one for their baby.”

The walls of Tangerinas also hang heavy with the work of “Aunt Deb,” as Griffin calls her. One memorable series of paintings by Debbie Prater depicts the four seasons on large windows with wood frames. Taken together, they tell a story: In “Spring,” two lovebirds find each other among the leaves of a verdant tree. In “Summer,” they make a home in a nest they built in the branches of the tree. In “Fall,” the two are curiously missing, although the reason for their absence becomes clear in “Winter,” which sees a pair of baby birds added to what is now a family.

Pieces like this aren’t produced overnight; like all good art, they take many hours of intense labor. But Griffin says their customers make it all worthwhile: “We become a part of their homes. Our work isn’t disposable - it doesn’t hang on their walls for a season – it becomes a part of their lives.”

Part of the fun of going to Tangerinas is exploring. Although the gallery is small, the walls are covered, which encourages a sense of exploration. I took my time, peering closely into every nook and cranny so I didn’t miss anything. “Could I hang a coat on those?” I ask the cashier after I discovered a cluster of repainted and mounted hooks. “If that’s what you want to do with them,” she says, smiling. Of course.

Although Griffin and Aunt Deb made nearly everything in Tangerinas, the two have allowed a few other select products into the gallery, including goat’s milk soap (not fudge, as I originally thought when I overheard two women picking through a basket of it), jewelry, candles, and gorgeous handmade pottery. But they were picky. “We wanted to keep Tangerinas small, and sell just the things we like,” she says. “The soap was one of the hardest things to find.”

While I’m talking with Nicole, a woman picks through a display of small paintings and quickly selects three, including one of a cross. “Are these Christmas presents?” the lady behind the sales counter asks. “No, they’re for me,” she says. Good for her, I thought. There’s something personal about the artwork at Tangerinas; it speaks to something inside of you.

Nicole and Aunt Deb started Tangerinas in 2006 at the Chattanooga Market. Nicole had moved down on her own from Toledo, Ohio, and as the two hung out, they made the furniture and artwork for Nicole’s first apartment. “We had workshops where we’d break out the wine,” she says, laughing. “We didn’t use any power tools, but we did paint – and then fix it in the morning.”

Once Nicole’s place was furnished, the two continued making art together, and before long, they were selling their work at the Market and at trade shows. They opened their gallery in 2009.

“We appreciated recycled materials, and liked keeping things out of the landfills,” she says. “We liked seeing what we could use.”

I liked seeing what they used, too, and am looking forward to going back and seeing if I missed anything while peering into the nooks and crannies.

Tangerinas is open Monday through Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. During January and February, they will be offering 30 percent off their Christmas merchandise and ten percent off the cost of refurbishing wood furniture. For more, visit www.tangerinasonline.com.   

For more photos, pick up a copy of the Hamilton County Herald.