What happens when a creative couple transforms an abandoned
hunting shack into a funky home
An old painted board from a torn-down house. A fragment of chipped glass. A piece of cast-off and rusted galvanized roofing. A hubcap. All things that might be found at your local dump, but in the eyes and hands of potter Brooke Noble and her partner, self-described “jack-of-all-trades-and-master-of-none” Justin Thurston—artists in their late 30s who live in the town of Bloomingdale—these are materials. For art, for crafts and, above all, for incorporating in the construction of their quirky, colorful work-in-progress home. They are like the artistic version of American Pickers, seeing deals and must-acquire items wherever they go.
“I can’t help it,” says Noble, originally from the town of Findley Lake, in Chautauqua County. She proudly shows off her vintage typewriter collection, displayed in the loft area of their small office and bedroom—also the home of a dozen reclaimed antique windows, suspended from a beam by Thurston to define the space. The result is a stunning glass wall of light.
Some might call them hoarders. Together they have several storage units crammed with—let’s be honest here—mostly junk. They see it differently, however. To them salvage and scrap are pure treasure, and they see themselves as world excavators. “Like that old pinball game you came across, from 1949, with the racehorse motif,” Thurston says, referring to one of the things Noble has stashed away. “Who could pass that up?”
Thurston’s weakness is vintage traffic and road signs, and “old broken kids’ games from the ’50s, like Perfection and Etch-A-Sketch.” Noble is attracted to antique kitchen utensils. “I have a major eggbeater collection. And funnels. I love funnels.”
She also finds old cassette tapes, those job cases for letterpress type, and slide projectors appealing; “They are like relics from the analog era,” she says.
Another of the things Noble found appealing was Waterbury, Vermont, native Thurston—his childhood friend was her pottery studio-mate during a residency at Vermont Clay Studio. The pair, who met in 2002, knew pretty quickly they were like souls: She is the kind of woman with an extensive paint-chip collection. He is the kind of man who can’t pass up six bundles of shingles on craigslist. Neither can walk away from a day out without some new trinket or item—usually from the 1940s or ’50s—they can’t wait to show the other. “If I hadn’t met Brooke, I would probably be a hermit,” Thurston says. After all, who would put up with his ever-growing collection of odds and ends? Only she would understand this compulsion, he says, as she has her own rival compendium of miscellany.
Bricolage, the French call it—the construction or creation of a work from a diverse range of things that happen to be available. Think of it as collage writ large. In the case of Noble and Thurston, written in the walls themselves, which might show a bit of found this and a bit of found that, resulting in a patchwork quilt of colors and textures. Things taken out of their original contexts that find a new home in their home, under construction over the past 15 years. Someday, pieces of that pinball machine may be added onto a wall, or made into a kitchen counter, or even, perhaps, the floor of something.
Thurston purchased the teensy hunting cabin, a mere 352 square feet, for $15,000 in 1999, when he spied it up the road from his brother’s house and learned it had been abandoned by a tenant. With its exhausted peach shag carpet and a veneer of mold, he knew he had his work cut out for him, but he loved the idea anyway. This was what he liked to do, after all, “reclaim and recycle abandoned things into new things.” After he brought Noble on board with the Bloomingdale project in July 2003, they left it for three years while they moved to the Midwest so she could attend graduate school at Southern Illinois University. Then they lived in it in an extremely unfinished state for years, at one point with nothing more than tarps and old Mexican blankets flapping where a wall should be. “Our beast of a wood stove, reclaimed from an old camp, has at times been the lifeline in a fight against subzero winter temperatures and frozen pipes,” Noble says. Many basic materials for the house were salvaged from the remodel construction sites of homes for which Thurston acts as property manager or caretaker.
Today, the little art house is nearer to completion, closer to 1,300 square feet, with an added story, a balcony and a bathroom nearly done. The kitchen is tiled with multi-colored ceramic triangles made by Noble, and Thurston has incorporated a bevy of old signs with arrows in them (arrows are one of his favorite themes) in the wall of the great room. Shelves of some of Noble’s personal collection of pottery cups decorate another wall, in the kitchen area. Every inch seems to have something to say about the pair’s creativity.
It takes a long time to put it all together, they say, because they spend most of their time collecting the parts, as well as making and selling the art they live on. Both have studios in the area, Noble’s near home in Bloomingdale and Thurston’s in Saranac Lake. They hold an annual open house in December for their collaborative business, which goes by the name Fight or Flight Studios.
They are also periodically on the road, at arts-and-craft fairs and festivals, and on summer Saturdays at the Saranac Lake Farmers’ Market at Riverside Park, where they sell his reclaimed wood art and her narrative pottery. (Her colorful patterned earrings are a popular new item she has been making, with hand-hammered silver findings; they sell for as little as $25 to $35.) It is a skill she passes on in courses for both children and adults at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts, where she serves as studio manager.
What’s next for them? “Well, we did just get 12 solar panels the other day,” says Thurston. “I’d like to get those up.”
“I am continuing with the tile work,” Noble says. “And grouting the bathroom walls.”
“A work of art is never finished,” said the artist Leonardo da Vinci, and this is certainly true for Noble and Thurston, who have been working on their house for over a decade and don’t show any signs of slowing, or completing it, soon. What would they do if they ever did finish it?
The question sort of throws them. There is one of those long, pregnant silences. “I don’t know,” says Noble, “maybe travel?”
You can be certain wherever they go they will bring big backpacks with space for more eclectic finds. “Whenever we are driving, there is this thing Justin says,” Noble recounts: “‘I wonder what’s in that barn?’”