The first several times I met Justin, it was in the context of cool, funky parties at Paulk and Company on William’s Street. Artists, music and generally fun people enjoyed the eclectic oddities assembled inside and outside the space. The vibe is still there, from the rusted Packard parked out front to the Gatling gun and the cute dinosaur begging to be ridden. Mixed in with the curiosities are signs of serious work: slabs of stone and concrete, machines that appeal to the kid in all of us, a new 3-D printer purchased just to see what possibilities it might hold and more than a quick scan can possibly assimilate.
I’m not sure I’ve met anyone who more convincingly states that he loves his city. Born in Knoxville, he grew up in Rocky Hill, attending Bearden Middle and Bearden High School (where his mother was a long-time librarian). He said he’s always been happy to live here, though he added he also loves Santa Fe and New York – both places his artist father’s work is featured in galleries. He grew up watching his father make art and make money doing it, so it never occurred to him that pursuing his own art wouldn’t pay.
He says “art is in my blood, I’ve got no choice,” though he said college wasn’t for him. He loved his engineering classes, but not so much the others, so he dropped out in favor of welding school and got a job in a machine shop. He worked all the construction trades and said it was, “hard work, but I learned.” He trimmed houses with a friend and learned how houses are built. Experimenting with concrete on the side, he worked with electricians and he worked with plumbers.
One pivotal stint was his time with Allen Tillman at Tillman Companies. As his role in the general contracting business, he routinely visited a wide range of construction sites talking to contractors. He says it accelerated his understanding of the scope of construction projects. By 2009 he’d gotten his contractors license and was hired by Betsy Davis in Union County to build her home. She’d chosen the materials but had him put them together as he pleased. Elizabeth Eason Architecture did the design and Justin experienced the creativity and freedom of working on his own.
He’d been making concrete countertops for his own home and began getting requests from friends and family who saw them there. In 2011 he re-shingled about forty roofs following the hail storms of that spring. He continued welding and building furniture. He married and had a son while operating a large crew. It was a continuation of learning more about himself and his craft and it would all be important as he considered starting Paulk and Company.
510 Williams Street at that time was owned by Brian Margetts housed Merton Abby Rug and Binding Company. In addition to rugs, he sold granite and marble counter tops and Justin had worked with him in his role as a general contractor. In 2009, when Brian’s wife was transferred to Texas, he called Justin and tried to sell him the building. Justin thought the idea was crazy and he wryly added, “so did the banker.” He said, “no” for six months, but on March 2, 2012, he handed over a “stack of cash,” which represented everything he had. He felt overwhelmed. But he went to work.
The early years were difficult, but he paid off the remainder of the debt in three-and-a-half years, a feat for which he gives credit to his, “great team.” Most of the work was single-family residential at first, but he began to do some work for Mark Heinz and David Dewhirst at Dewhirst Properties, working on the Standard and, later, The Mill and Mine. The JC Penney building represented a huge turning point as he was hired to reproduce the ornamental brick on the facade. It had been destroyed to make the face of the building flat so panels, designed to make it look more modern, could be placed flush on the surface. He made a thousand bricks and got the contract to make the counter tops inside each unit.
The original plan for counter tops called for importing 40,000 pounds of black granite for the surfaces. He points out that his counter tops filled the building using all local materials, plus about fifty pounds of material which had to be shipped. It’s a significant environmental difference that is important to him. He appreciates the connection to ancient artisans who built structures from what was at hand.
He’s also refined the process, pointing out that typical concrete can withstand 4,000 pounds per square inch, while his proprietary mixture is much harder and can withstand three times as much. Its hardness allows it to polish much better. He says he “listens to the materials” and allows them to, “be what they want to be.” Some of his best work, he says, is when he “freestyles,” and his reputation is such that increasing numbers of clients are allowing him to do just that.
Whether fabricating with metal, concrete or other materials, he told me he doesn’t, “want to build what others have built. I also don’t want to repeat myself. And you can see it in his work whether on the exterior of the JC Penney Building or inside at the bar in Babaloo or downstairs in Maple Hall. You’ll find it at Balter, The Standard, The Mill and Mine and GEO Hair Lab. He’s constructing pieces for A Dopa Pizzeria next door to his shop. You’ll find his constructions at Morningside Park and Sequoyah Hills. His work is literally building the city.
What’s next? He doesn’t know, yet. Maybe part of the answer is in 3-D construction. For now, the new printer is a novelty of sorts, but he points out that architects could use it to build models of their projects as opposed to using balsa wood the old school way. It will reproduce objects up to a cubic foot in size and can print in a variety of materials. Urban Girl was my partner for the day and she came away with a “Cute-a-saurus,” a dinosaur made on the 3-D printer, by Marisa, the newest member of Justin’s team.
Justin is another example of the people I’ve written so much about in recent weeks and months. They are “making cool stuff.” They are working hard and being creative. Many of them are millennials who shatter every popular myth about their generation. Justin ended our interview with a very simple summary of what he’s about: “I love my town. I always wanted to point to things in my city and say, ‘I made that.'” It’s safe to say generations from now people will point in many directions around our city and say, “Justin Paulk made that.”