CCSD inmate turns trash into colorful bouquets

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   A rose is a rose, and a spoon is a spoon. Or are they?
   Not according to James Chambers, 43, an inmate who is serving out a sentence at the Carter County Jail and who says he has found a way to bridge worlds.
   A Roan Mountain native, Chambers was sentenced for public intoxication and violation of probation. He spends his days washing patrol cars that belong to Carter County Sheriff's Department deputies, Elizabethton Police Department officers, and Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers.
   Like any job, there are down times. Though sitting around waiting for the next unit to return can be leisurely, it also gets boring. To make productive use of time, Chambers and other workers find release through recycling and artistic expression.
   Jail inmates receive two hot meals a day -- breakfast and dinner -- and sandwiches for lunch. With the inmate count at the Carter County Jail rarely dipping below 150, this creates, on average, 300 spoons a day, which ordinarily get tossed into the trash. Multiply that by 365 days a year, and it adds up to a sizable pile in the Carter County Landfill.
   Chambers said he and other inmates now collect the spoons from food trays, wash them, and, in an attempt to avoid having to throw them away, make something out of them.
   "I was sitting around one day, and I just come up with the idea. I started doing flowers out of the spoons. I've been doing them since about a year and a half ago," said Chambers, who crafts them when he is at home "for churches; my mom; for people to put on graves," and, he said, for neighbors in the Tiger Creek area.
   Chambers slightly melts the spoon tops into the shape of petals or leaves, then pokes the handles through slits in a cardboard box and allows the spoons to cool. He then uses spray paint to transform them into green leaves and stems.
   Working from a two-spoon base, he carefully fuses the bottoms of the petals to the stem, then slowly builds outward, adding petals until the rose takes shape.
   "By the time I get the leaves on them, you can't see where I messed up," he said.
   Chambers paints roses pink, red, or yellow, often using a combination of colors to create a more realistic effect. "In winter you mostly have to have white roses," he said.
   There are at least 14 spoons per flower. For example, one red rose contained more than 30 spoons, counting stems and leaves. "If you're going to make them small, like a bud, you can use less," he said.
   When Chambers has a dozen roses completed, he arranges them in a vase, adds colorful glass stones to balance the weight, and tops off the arrangement with artificial greenery. "I fixed my mom one here a while back. I fixed her 12 big white ones and put a bunch of that green stuff in there. She put it right up on the television. She loves it," he said.
   Chambers said that, even though he can make different items out of the spoons, he mostly makes roses. "It's something to do. Plus, it's fun," he said.
   The flowers are so unique Chambers even gets requests for them from jailers and other officers, who "take them home to their wives for anniversaries," he said.
   Sheriff John Henson's secretary, Eva Moore, has a bouquet of pink roses on display in her office that Chambers made. One would never guess they were once spoons.
   "Some of these inmates are very smart, and some of them have got the ability and the capability to do a lot of things, but alcohol and drugs are a big problem," John Henson said.
   Henson said Chambers has never had anything other than alcohol-related charges. "He's just got an alcohol problem. If he ever gets rid of it, he's got the ability to go somewhere with his life. To take something that's going to go to waste anyway and make something out of it, in my opinion, is a plus," Henson said.