HUDSON — James "Topper" Hobbs creates glittering treasures from what the rest of the world throws away.
His female mannequins, sea turtles, butterflies, geckos — even old guitars — glisten beneath bright patterns of beads, buttons, vintage jewelry, even scraps of old car accessories he finds in the trash.
"I've used everything from beer pull tabs to shells when I've been in tropical places," said Hobbs, who spent 20 years in the Navy as a weather forecaster, a job that took him around the world to some far-flung locales.
"I can always find junk no matter where I am. I like things that I can repeat over and over."
Hobbs and his wife, Lisa, a nurse, now live in a Hudson subdivision in cozy, two-bedroom, two-bath lakefront house that they bought six months ago.
"This was my favorite of all the houses we looked at," he said. "I sat down on the back porch with the previous owner, drank a glass of lemonade and thought, 'This is pretty pleasant.' "
The house perches on a hill overlooking a cypress-ringed, moss-canopied lake with a bird sanctuary in the center.
Hobbs, who has blue eyes and a deep, melodious voice (he's also trained as an auctioneer), loves to wear crazy, colorful shirts and comfortable jeans and smoke cigars. Somewhere in his 50s, he's handsome in the same way as Hemingway or Hunter S. Thompson.
He's outdoorsy, a gifted raconteur and a self-described flirt who long ago quit drinking and these days devotes himself solely to his art.
He works from a studio in a small back bedroom — usually with his miniature collie, Kona, at his side — where he creates his beaded patterns and applies them to his mannequins and whimsical wooden forms. He first loosely draws out designs, then cuts his shapes from old, salvaged wooden palettes.
He also dresses up large found objects with his treasures, particularly lamps, female mannequins and other interesting things that catch his eye. He covers a lot of his artwork in a "friendly" resin he has developed over the years, a solution that he still applies in his garage workspace, though it isn't nearly as potent as earlier concoctions.
"It's the one thing my wife won't let me do in the house," said Hobbs, who still refers to his spouse as "the prettiest girl at the party."
Hobbs, who grew up in Paducah, Ky., where he jokes that he was always the art teacher's pet, started making his mixed-media sculptures back in 1989 as a practical joke for a neighbor.
"I made him the most god-awful lamp — which, by the way, he still owns — and he said, 'Hmm … I think you're onto something here.' "
His trademark whimsical geckos — he jokingly calls his style 'art gecko' — are inspired by the real-life geckos that visited him when he was creating artwork in tropical outposts.
Over the years, his military career took him to Hawaii, Guam, Panama, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Supplies were hard to come by, so Hobbs made do with whatever he had on hand.
These days he rustles up beads, jewelry and scraps of shiny things everywhere from curbside trash heaps to flea markets.
His work hangs in private collections and galleries, including the Green Fish Gallery in St. Petersburg (www.greenfish gallery.net).
It can also be found in some unlikely places as well: A major hotel and nightclub owner from Nashville bought a guitar from Hobbs who sings, plays guitar and banjo and dabbled briefly in a music career.
"I like country, blues and Southern rock but just play for myself now," he said.
He creates his art, too, mainly for personal gratification. He works at his own pace and sells for affordable prices; a smaller piece typically sells for about $200.
"I make what I can," Hobbs explains.
"I don't want it to become a production-line thing. I want to be able to make, and sell, my work at prices people can afford."
Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at [email protected]