Ashley Gardner, owner of Rustic Soul Vintage Goods, (pictured above in her adorable “Oh Deer” Halloween costume) has been one of my personal favorite creators in the painted furniture trend, a design practice that’s been in full swing in Northwest Arkansas for quite some time. But in her new hometown of Kershaw, South Carolina, she’s blazing a colorful new trail, something the artisan of repurposed vintage furniture and home décor wasn’t completely prepared for.
I got the opportunity to catch up with Ashley over the phone one Saturday afternoon to find out how the talented wife of Benny and mother of Aubrey, 20, Brandy, 17, Isaac, 5, and Jack Avett, 2 ½ months, is adjusting to her new adventure.
“We inherited my husband’s grandfather’s farmhouse and land in Kershaw. Moving to South Carolina was always the plan,” Ashley said, pronouncing the word with a good deal of hesitation, “but we just didn’t know when. I said I would only move if I could live on the beach!” She laughed, “But God has a way of planting seeds,” she said, referring to how her hesitation eventually gave way to being open to relocation. The prompting to take the plunge came from an unexpected source.
Ashley was expecting their fourth child when daughter Brandy asked her why, after inheriting the home and property, they were still living in Northwest Arkansas. “We told her we were waiting for her to finish high school, and that’s when she told us she was ready for an adventure!” As a hair stylist by day, Ashley knew she couldn’t continue to work long hours doing hair as well as invest time refinishing furniture with a newborn and a 5-year-old. “All the little pieces just fell into place which allowed us to go ahead and make the move.” It was a move that has also included an extensive home renovation project which Ashley has shared on her company’s Facebook page alongside progress pictures with the hashtag 1957overhaul.
Ashley started selling her refinished furniture in 2012, although her love for it originated much earlier in life. “Growing up, we moved around a lot so we didn’t keep things. I remember not having anything that was handed down,” she reminisced. Ashley wanted to collect things she could pass down to her children and wanted to be surrounded by a sense of nostalgia. “To this day, when I’m out looking for furniture and I come across military pictures for sale, it hurts my heart. I just think where are their families?” She wishes she had been able to inherit more family heirlooms and has been impacted by the lack of it in her life. “I have a suitcase full of my grandfather’s pictures when he was stationed in Hawaii. I look at them and see other people’s faces in the pictures and can’t help but wonder if they made it through the war.” She has since acquired a collection of military memorabilia, but it was out of necessity that her love for old furniture took shape.
“We didn’t have a lot of money when my daughter Aubrey was born and I remember needing a piece of furniture for her bedroom.” So as a young mother, Ashley purchased a four drawer chest at a garage sale for $5. “My former husband’s grandmother taught me how to strip, stain and refinish that piece of furniture.” Over the years, she said, that same chest would be refinished several more times as Ashley’s passion for the art form blossomed. “I learned quickly that I didn’t want to spend my money on the newer, expensive furniture that had drawers with cardboard bottoms.” She realized early on that older furniture, although in need of refinishing, had staying power. Although she enjoyed working with the furniture, it wasn’t until much later in life at the urging of her husband Benny that Ashley took the leap and started selling her work. “I remember Benny asking me, ‘Why aren’t you doing what you love?’ If it wasn’t for him encouraging me, I probably never would have done it.”
Ashley debuted her painted furniture at Spanker Creek Arts and Crafts Festival in 2012. “I made $600 at arts and crafts that year but it felt like a million!” She recalled the first piece of furniture she sold during the fair, a six drawer dresser painted in chevron and lattice stencil. “I cried while I moved it to the loading area! I just couldn’t believe someone wanted a piece of my furniture in their house.” She says that particular piece of furniture was representative of her own eclectic style, personality and journey, recalling how the different layers of paint were revealed during the sanding process- layers of old and new that told the story of that dresser.
Ashley’s pieces have been sold in Somewhere In Time Antique Mall in Rogers, AR, True Treasures in Bentonville, and continues to sell at Carolina Charm in Kershaw, South Carolina, where she opened a booth in July of this year. Ashley continues to do what she loves, but the move hasn’t been without its challenges.
“The market in South Carolina is completely different,” Ashley said it was something she wasn’t completely prepared for. “South Carolina has been greatly affected by the fall of our economy.” Ashley and her family now reside in an area demographically different from that of Northwest Arkansas, an area that was once home to several textile factories that recently sold to a South American company leaving people without jobs. She has also witnessed a difference in consumer attitudes toward the practice of painting furniture.
She explained that people of Kershaw hold antique furniture in much higher regard overall because the antiques are older and much more abundant. Selling her signature painted furniture in her booth at Carolina Charm is something she’s had to defend. “So coming in as a furniture painter, people were like, ‘You’re painting that?’ And I’ve had to explain my respect for fine antiques. I’ve had to explain that if it’s a 200 year old dresser in pristine condition, there’s no way I’ll paint it. But if I’ve got something that’s damaged and it’s a piece from the 60’s that nobody would want, I can paint it and make it desirable again.”
Since the practice of painting furniture is just now becoming a trend in Kershaw, she feels like she’s having to rebuild her business from the ground up.“I was hoping to walk right in and sell a bunch of furniture, but since the trend is just beginning, I’m having to sell myself as well as sell customers on the concept that it’s ok to paint furniture.”
Ashley is also a sales representative for Dixie Belle Paint Company, a company she says she “loves” because of the product and accessibility of the owner who has been available and supportive as she walks through this transition. Ashley is one of only a few representatives in the state of South Carolina, and is getting the opportunity to teach people how to use the high quality chalk mineral paint products, a popular brand that is widely distributed and used around the country.
“Doing the painting has been my passion but now I’m in survival mode. I’m getting out and meeting people and teaching a lot of classes.” So in many ways, she says, she feels like she’s having to start all over. “I knew it would be difficult, but didn’t think it would be this difficult.” Even so, since opening her booth at Carolina Charm in July, she’s had to expand three times, a very welcomed victory.
In Northwest Arkansas, Ashley sourced her inventory from garage sales and Craigslist, she said. “Craigslist was my favorite, until it caught on and then the prices got so high you couldn’t afford to do that anymore.” When asked where her favorite furniture sources are in Kershaw, she giggled. “Well, people put some really amazing things in the trash here!” Her new favorite spot is the local dump. Her father-in-law has even gotten in on the action. While she’s on one side of town at haul-off sites, he’s on the other. “I’ll tell him what I’m looking for and he’ll tell me we should go look in one of his storage buildings or in his barns.” She says he now shares her excitement, “He’ll say, ‘Look what I found! Did I do good?!’”
Ashley is always on the hunt for more furniture to paint. “When you have something you’re looking for it’s always in the back of your mind. Knowing I can add to my collection keeps it fun and exciting.”
She says her passion has definitely impacted her kids as well. “They’ve seen what I do and they want their careers to be something they love, regardless of how much it pays.” Her daughter Brandy now has the ability to see potential in the home they’re renovating and the furniture she drags home to refinish. Daughter Aubrey, third generation Navy, who was definitely a skeptic at first, is now a believer in her mom’s ability to transform even the most undesirable of old furniture. “She’ll call me when I post pictures of something I’ve painted and say, ‘I’m sending you money! Don’t sell it! I want that!’ She’s actually allowed me decorate her entire apartment.” It’s an accomplishment that makes Ashley’s voice ring with the pride of a mother as well as an artist.
“I’m still just so excited that people want a piece of my furniture in their house,” Ashley relates with a sense of passion, a passion that continues to provide fuel for her new journey as well as her rustic soul.
Ashley’s paint products and home décor items can still be found throughout True Treasures flea market on Highway 72 West in Bentonville, Arkansas.