By JON BAKER
PAWTUCKET — Adam Salisbury admits he’s not particularly impressed with his creations, but does enjoy the reaction he gets when he displays them.
“I was at the Scituate Art Festival about six years ago, and I remember people coming up to my booth would say, ‘Oh, my God! Look at that! How creative!’” said the 49-year-old Pawtucket resident and self-described carpenter-turned-artist, who has developed a way to mold old car license plates into funky, colorful, wonderful birdhouses.
Not only that, but he can design vans, whales and even folks’ favorite sports team logos out of the same.
He claimed the process is quite easy, but wouldn’t reveal how he does it, not with some people phoning him for advice and his secrets.
“I started playing around with the idea back around 2013-14,” smiled Salisbury, sipping from his favorite light beer after working all day in his Lofts on Columbus studio late Monday afternoon. “But I don’t think what I do is all that unusual. It’s a little different, I guess. I don’t consider it all that special, but apparently other people do, and I get a kick out of it.”
It was by accident how Salisbury happened upon his craft, but he seems plenty happy he did. He’s turned it into what was, at least before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, a satisfying full-time job.
On one side of his studio apartment entitled “R.I. Artisan Birdhouse,” he has built six shelves stacked on top of each other, and sitting on the top two shelves are birdhouses made out of plates from 48 of the 50 states. He won’t reveal the ones he’s lacking, though he notes that it could change any day now.
On the bottom four? “The other ones are all overstock.”
“With COVID, it’s been pretty hard because you sell most of your stuff at art festivals and shows, and obviously all of those have been canceled. That’s how I make the income for most of the year, as I’m a freelancer,” he added. “I did go to one small show, the Block Island Artisans and Artists Fair in August, and I did fantastic, but that was it. I definitely didn’t make enough to live on.”
Nowadays, the self-professed “early bird” wakes up each morning with the mindset of creating as many birdhouses and signs/artwork as possible, “increasing my inventory for when the time comes I can sell again.
“Now all I can do is try to sell them on Etsy while I’m collecting unemployment and applying for small business grants and loans. That should help me through the winter, and hopefully this (coronavirus) goes away by spring. I’m anxious to get back into the groove.”
And to imagine Salisbury never even graduated high school.
He grew up in Attleboro and became a Blue Bombardier, but decided to quit school as a sophomore to work assorted jobs. That choice came back in 1987.
One day during early fall 1989, not long after he would have graduated, he found himself talking to a neighbor, who gave him some advice.
“My neighbor worked for the phone company, and he told me if I wanted to work in carpentry, which was what I loved, I should go to the Caribbean; the people down there had just gone through Hurricane Hugo, and it devastated the islands,” he said. “So, there I was, 18, flying down to St. Croix and hoping to find a job.”
Incredibly, he did.
“About 20 minutes after I landed, I got off the plane, went to a bar named Hondo’s Back Yard in Christiansted, St. Croix (on the northern part of the island) and was just sitting there when a guy came up to me, asked if I was looking for work and said, ‘I’ll give you $25 an hour and a place to live,’” he said. “I just said, ‘You’re on!’ and I became his apprentice.”
“Most of the guys in the bar were looking for workers to build homes and businesses; the hurricane destroyed most of them. So much work needed to get done.”
Salisbury said he eventually tired of living and working on an island, so he figured he’d return home to find more work. He nevertheless claimed what he learned about his trade and himself was valuable.
“It was a great experience, it was awesome living there, but I got sick of it after a while,” he shrugged. “I learned a lot about carpentry, I learned more about myself. I had to live on my own. I was making money, but I was also spending a lot.”
After returning in 1994, he worked as a house builder and/or remodeler for the next 20 years or so before a layoff hit him hard during the winter of 2012-13.
“I was in my garage behind my house in Darlington one day, and the idea hit me, it came out of nowhere,” he stated. “I thought, ‘I’m going to build some birdhouses for the trees in my front yard.’ I started looking for materials to build with and, suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw an old tea kettle. I figured that would make a neat birdhouse.
“I made it for myself, and after I finished, I stepped back and looked at it. I was pretty impressed with myself,” he continued. “I liked how cool it looked. The very next day, I went to the Salvation Army and bought a bunch of stuff. I thought I could make a birdhouse out of anything, and that’s what I set out to do.”
He made about five and hung them in his trees, and it didn’t take long for passers-by to slow down or stop for a peek.
“People would ask me if they were for sale, and then it was like a light bulb switched on in my head,” he said. “I went to the Seekonk flea market and bought a bunch of stuff, built about 15-20 birdhouses out of tea kettles, advertising tins, water cans, oil cans, lanterns, you name it. It was all an experiment.
“I went down to the Charlestown flea and sold a lot, so I did that for a couple of weekends, then I went to the Providence flea, and that’s when everything took off. I met a lot of artists who recommended me to people who ran other shows; they told me which ones I should go to considering what I did. I was still working in carpentry, but building those birdhouses after work or off days.”
“It was 2013 when it became a legitimate business, and eventually I gave up carpentry,” he said. “I thought this was more fun.”
How he began making creations out of license plates is another story altogether.
“I saw a box of old plates at another flea market and figured on a whim to try those,” Salisbury said. “I made the ones I had taken to Scituate, and then I did the Gaspee Days festival in Warwick and crushed it. Everybody was interested in buying them.
“I liked working with them because they’re so pliable, workable; I do just about everything by hand,” he added. “The roofs, I just mold them with my hands because the plates are so malleable. How I actually build it? I won’t say.
“Now I know the ones that sell the best are the ones made with license plates, but I can make birdhouses or signs out of anything, like coffee cans, spoons, forks, jewelry, saltine metal containers, lunch boxes, tobacco tins, fire extinguishers, etc.”
Salisbury nevertheless admits he abhors answering one particular query from his constituents – that is, “Where do you get all of those license plates?” If there’s one thing he doesn’t miss about such shows and festivals, it’s that.
“That drives me crazy!” he laughed. “It’s literally asked 100 times a day, and I get sick and tired of it. I usually just give them a short answer, ‘At metals recycling places.’”
He picks them up at scrap yards, flea markets, yard sales or from “pickers,” fellow “freelancers” who watch for such items in their daily sojourns. If they find them, Salisbury will pay them for their time – and, naturally, the plates.
He also states he’s met his fair share of interesting individuals over the years. In fact, one memory ignites a chortle.
“One lady saw the design I did of a whale using plates, and she asked me if I could make one with all Ohio plates,” he grinned. “I told her, ‘Isn’t that kind of weird?’ and she said, ‘Why?’ So I responded, “Because it’s nowhere near the ocean.’”
“She thought for a sec, then said, ‘Oh, yeah. OK, never mind,’ turned around and walked away.”
Anyone interested in seeing any of Salisbury’s birdhouses and other work may visit R.I. Artisan Birdhouse on Facebook or Instagram.