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Collectively Speaking: For Karen Gatzke, It’s Repurposed Materials

Turning commonplace discards into artful discoveries connects her to the past.

You might say that Karen Gatzke’s entire home is her collection as even parts of its architecture have been transformed into found art, under her discerning eye.

When she and her partner, Sharon Rossi, redid the back porch of the 1923 bungalow purchased six years ago, the metal shingles took on a new life as valances above lace-curtained windows. Gatzke painted the once dark brown shingles a soft green and added detailing.

“I like the idea of old things that have some character to them,” she said. “It just makes me feel comfortable.”           

As a child, Gatzke found comfort visiting her grandmother who lived in a bungalow in Baltimore Highlands—between Lansdowne and Arbutus—where she often spent Sunday afternoons in her attic, hearing tales about the possessions it held.

“I have a lot of her furniture and things,” said Gatzke, as her sister and cousins had no interest in them.

She pointed to a line of colorful marbles atop the kitchen doorway. They belonged to her father when he was a child and were given to her by her grandmother. Most people would not think of turning those mundane mementos into eye-catching decorative trim. Not so Gatzke. “I like that whole family connection.”

Redoing the back porch also led to another bit of repurposing. A salvaged screen transom became a “Rossi’s Kitchen” sign that graces the refrigerator alcove in the kitchen, thanks to the talents of one of the Baltimore screen painters. She observed that the Painted Screen Society of Baltimore is trying to pass the dying craft to a younger generation.

A walk onto the enclosed back porch revealed a view of a naturally landscaped yard that backs to the woods, which have provided fertile ground for her collecting. And if she isn’t collecting herself, friends who know of her interest tend to find things for her. Recently, she was given a box of bottles discovered during the renovation of the building where House of Time is located on Frederick Road.

Said Gatzke: “I love old bottles and have a lot of the dairy bottles from around here: Hilton and Wilton.”

A round table covered with assorted glass and bits of natural materials is her usual work place. “I’m a little quirky,” laughed Gatzke. “My latest thing is that I’m making these terrariums. I am trying to combine this old stuff with nature, because I love both.”

When Gatze isn’t incorporating such finds into her own home, her professional life means that she is finding or selling homes for others as a real estate agent for Coldwell Banker in town.

As a volunteer, Gatzke is director of the community-based We Love Catonsville and is proud of the slogan: “Life is great in 21228.” At the recent Arts and Crafts Festival, people came to their booth looking for the magnet, specifically.

“Something that may seem insignificant can mean so much to someone in their town,” said Gatzke.

In explaining the group’s purpose, Gatzke said, “We tend to handle things that other groups don’t have time to do or the resources to do.”

For example, the group worked with Congressman Elijah Cummings’ office to tidy up the landscaping around the Catonsville Post Office. They also promote Rails to Trails and other community-based organizations through a very active Facebook page, which she maintains.

Gatzke admits to being a bit obsessed. The first day that she and Rossi, a hospital administrator, moved into the house, Gatzke discovered a pair of French doors in the basement that had been removed from the entrance into the dining room.

“I wanted to work on them immediately,” but her partner was more interested in getting the kitchen organized. “That’s the kind of thing that sings to me.”

At the moment, what is singing to her is creating terrariums unlike those popularized during the 1970s. As described in a promotional sheet: “Each Green Scene has a combo of reclaimed vintage items, old bottles, found objects (dumpster diving is not above me) & nature’s gifts.”

A local flower shop will carry them, each to include a story that describes the contents, attached to a piece of bark—naturally.

One of her designs included a miniature deer figurine that she had as a child. Another incorporated a few links of a small rusted chain that she found in the woods. Gatzke turned it into a snake with painted eyes.

A bottle dump somewhere in Catonsville has been fertile ground for many of her finds. She declined to reveal its location.

Happy hunting!            

Edward Williams September 18, 2011 at 03:25 AM
Karen ~ keep nurturing your artistic spirit !

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