Mirror Frame Art from Reclaimed Materials from Charleston, SC

Sean McNeil and his mirror art

Sean McNeil and his mirror art

Sean McNeil’s mirror art emerged from a gnarly country road of unexpected twists and turns in his career in furniture refinishing and art.

A friend of mine, Richard, back in late 2000, early 2001, called me up and told me to bring a truck and come get all the old doors and moldings I can carry. At the time, he worked for Con Co, which was a demolition company that had the contract with the Charleston Historical Society, so anything over 100 years old they had the contract to do, and I essentially filled up a 28-foot-long U Haul with all old doors and moldings and such wood. At the time, I had a store in Greenwood, South Carolina, and I spent money advertising the doors, and within six months I sold one door that had some folk painting on it of a guy on a tractor, and a little bit disheartened I decided one night to cut the doors up and make a piece of furniture out of it, which was actually two pieces of furniture. My girlfriend at the time, who was an artist herself, thought they were wonderful, and encouraged me to put them in an art show in Andersen Art Council.

In that show, they picked 300 works of art, and anybody could submit two, and out of that, I think, 297 of them were from different artists, and three artists had their same work picked twice, and I was one of those artists that first before the reception even started on opening night I had sold one of the pieces of furniture, which really shocked me.

So, Sean found himself in a situation where he had an abundance of doors and moldings from old Charleston homes.

I had been refinishing furniture since I was 13-years-old and had my own business in refinishing starting at age 17, so I had a great appreciation for the materials that Richard gave me. I certainly wasn't willing to just throw them away, and storing them seemed like a bad idea. But after six months, I just sold one door. So I needed to figure out something else to do with them.

Before repurposing got as big as it is now, Sean decided to draw on his artistic talents and combine them with his furniture refinishing and rebuilding skills to create a unique form of art.

When I look at a door, the first thing I think is “how can I cut it apart?”. So I actually see six pieces to one door, and then I think what can I do to trim out what I've cut out or embellish it, and I use and mill my own molding, and furniture, and old flooring and all sorts of other woodworking creation that I repurpose for incorporation and a finished piece that I'm doing nowadays. So I really didn't start off doing mirrors. In fact, I probably did a year or more of just basic building furniture, but it really was hard to move around, and the pieces that I made, the average were about the size of a dresser or a buffet, and without having somebody help me with them, I'd have to show up and kind of negotiate moving them myself, which I realized that that was kind of a bad idea, and moved to doing singular frames that I replaced with mirror, or put mirror in the door panel spots.

Sean’s art mirrors quickly found a following.

I quickly found that I could literally sell every piece of art that I did, which were mirror frames, and I could carry twenty, thirty with me. In the time, I had a van, and I would set up on Folly Beach, and display them, and there were many a days that I went out there, almost everyday I went out there, I would sell out awful quickly at least the major portion that I would bring out there.

Through doing that, I met a couple restaurant owners which used my mirrors to stock their restaurants. One of them was on Market Street, the Bull and Finch. Another one was RV's on Shim Creek, which I literally built huge mirror frames for them, and placed five of them the same size in the background, and then two more for their foyer area that faced one another.

Sean’s creative process pivots on a vision emerging from the materials he has on hand.

That's what I do. I've got to deal with the materials that I have on hand. The vision emerges from materials that I've already have gathered. It all begins with the doors, and the material that I'm starting off with. A great door is a colonial door, which has the panels that go side to side, horizontally, and not vertically. Most doors now are done vertical, with six panels. I want age. Everything starts with age. Everything starts with an old door, not a new door, but something that already has the character. In the beginning, when I got so many mirrors from Richard, so many doors from Richard, every one of them had been sitting, literally, twenty, thirty, some even longer, years in storage, that just had an incredible patina to them. Many of them had gator backing, and orange peeling, and all sorts of natural phenomena happening with the paint that was just the perfect canvas for me to do my art.

I really don't know how it's going to look until I put it on wood, because of course it's concentrated. Usually I'll get the impression of what it's gonna look like by the color, and if it's a color I like I just add just a little bit of different colors to it one way or another, and try to get a lot of complimenting colors in the same batch, where I'll get dark blue and lighter blues, and little blue greens, but they all really kind of connect, and certainly could be placed on the same wall.

It's not like I worked on art and thought of myself as hey, I'm gonna grow up to be an artist. It wasn't that. It was more along the line of I had to do art, for whatever reason, to help me through the kind of growing process, and have an outlet to express myself.