For Shawn Michael O’ Malley, working with wood and reclaimed materials is a passion as deep as his soul and he’s as sentimental about his pieces and their history as a mother who’s given birth to her first child.
“The dining table is the stage in which a family’s story plays out,” he says, one of many quotes he spins about his pieces that seem to flow out of him as fast as a skill-saw cuts a two-by-four.
He’s Irish, of course, so stories come naturally to him. But what’s up with the dark hair and eyes?
“While my family is mostly Irish and Scottish as far back as I have traced, the running joke in the family is that I had a great, great grandfather who took up with a ‘right of the wagon’ Romanian Gypsy. The family was up in arms that she had ‘bewitched’ him, but love is love and she cursed the family from that day on with dark hair and eyes!”
This gregarious, passionate, talented 42-year-old man creates works from salvaged materials and wood and says people are returning to a time where one significant piece of furniture is more important than owning tons of stuff.
“In the 80’s and 90’s everyone wanted 10 of everything,” Shawn said. “Then the recession hit.”
Purchasing hand-crafted tables, chairs and barn doors made from salvaged, recycled items is growing more popular in today’s environment. Perhaps it’s the HGTV, DIY TV influence. Maybe it’s about owning a piece of history (salvaged old barn wood for example) turned into a one-of-a-kind piece that will last for generations that is as great a conversation piece as it is a statement of permanence and value in our instant-gratification, here today-gone tomorrow world.
“I have nothing against Ikea,” says Shawn, “but it’ll fall apart in a few years.”
And for many of us, this sustainable design trend helps make a small dent in the landfill problem, although Shawn doesn’t see that as a major decision maker for Sarasotans buying his repurposed art.
Whether it’s a love of a historical story, the ability to pass along the dining table to future generations, or simply the awe of what Shawn can do, there’s a growing demand for his work. He just opened Heart’s Art (“Funky and Fine Wood Design”) about a year ago as a full time endeavor.
He named Heart’s Art and designed the logo after a doodle he used to give to his wife when he wrote her notes. Friends since 4th grade, they dated in high school and married more than two decades ago.
“ When I started selling my work, I realized that it also made my heart ‘fly’, and that the soul I put into each piece made it a piece of art from my heart,” Shawn said. .
After 20 or more years of working for others while he treated his woodworking as a side-job or hobby and put in 70-hour weeks, he was ready to launch Heart’s Art.
“I’ve always worked for businesses that I liked and believed in,” Shawn said. And he was lucky enough to manage Sarasota Architectural Salvage for close to a decade and also served as a manager for Home Depot so that he could at least work amongst the things he loved – old stuff, salvaged relics and wood.
Walk into his cozy showroom on Central Ave. in Sarasota and you might think you’ve mistakenly entered a small dive bar. In fact a sign reads, “O’Malley’s Wrecking Bar, sawdust and suds.” But that’s the combo break room, jam spot and after-hours chill place that also serves to showcase his bar and stools made out of recycled metal and wood and other pieces. The guitars hanging and upright bass in the corner are there mostly for his oldest son Jack who loves music and football. Liam, his youngest son, has taken to woodworking like Dad, and Shawn showed him how to create a custom table, which Liam sold to his delight. And the refrigerator full of beers…”if we give it away I don’t need a license,” Shawn jokes.
The commercial side of his business seems to be taking off as his work is showcased in: Sift Bakery, Mandeville Beer Garden, Stir, Giacomos (a new bar in Longboat Key) and Derrick’s in Bradenton (where he gutted an Arby’s of all things and added custom wood features) to name a few. He just finished 125 bar stools for a restaurant in St. Pete and is looking forward to a little breather to clean up the shop.
His favorite pieces to date?
“I had a lady come in who wanted me to build a whiskey bar for her husband,” Shawn said. “I found this awesome old gigantic automotive machine tester that had all these tubes and wires and cool stuff…I put lights and glass shelves in it.”
He also constructed a bench out of a wood beam from the demolition of the Old Ringling Towers.
Take a stroll through the warehouse and you’ll likely see some more interesting stuff in the works. One impressive ice chest is made of an old 50’s Frigidare refrigerator door for its top, and reclaimed wood panels for its base. A fish skeleton hangs from the ceiling as an example of turned wood another craftsman worked on.
And then there’s Cypress – the shop dog – another kind of rescue project.
“Someone tied him up outside one night and having not found his owner, we decided to name him Cypress and keep him as our shop dog,” Shawn said. “He’s the best dog…”
His rescued materials come from a variety of venues. Circus City Architectural Salvage. A man who demos Tennessee barns. Local construction companies who are into sustainability. Most materials do cost something, a misnomer to some people who think the stuff is free because it’s recycled. And actually, it’s more costly to build from salvaged wood, than from new, due to the time it takes to restore. But it’s just like the restoration of an old building, compared to building new. It’s the preservation of history and sustainability at the heart of the matter. And for many, it’s worth the price.
Shawn’s creative talents were evident early on. “As a child I was definitely an artist. I loved to draw and paint and was a very visual individual. I also loved to build and engineer things – Legos were my favorite canvas for that. All those early experiences have built what I am today.”
Born and raised in Sarasota, he attended Pineview and Booker High School and was working on wood since he was old enough to run a power saw. He acquired his woodworking skills and passion for recycling from his grandfather, who lived through the depression.
“My grandfather recycled more out of necessity during those days,” Shawn said. “But now it’s (recycling and salvaging) just the right thing to do.”
Shawn’s vision is expanding beyond his sometimes solitary craft. He likes camaraderie, he likes to talk, he likes being part of community. So he’s started teaching others how to build unique pieces. And he’s invited a blacksmith, oil painter, and another craftsman to share his space. It’s called Central Avenue Maker’s Space. While there is more interest from artisans to join him than he has room, he sees sharing, community and teaching as a natural part of his business’ growth in the future.
Have a vision for a new table, console, or what not? Bring it to Shawn and capture your vision in whatever salvaged materials or wood strikes your fancy. Want to build it yourself? He’ll teach you and help you build it!
“I lead my customers step by step through the entire process,” Shawn says. “I ask the questions they don’t know to ask.”
For more information, visit Heart’s Art at www.heartsartdesign.com or call 941-504-6093. The shop is at Central Avenue Makers Space at 1143 Central Avenue in Sarasota.
Photos by Patti Pearson and courtesy of Shawn O’Malley.