MARCHING TO A DIFFERENT BEAT

BY COLIN MCCANDLESS | PHOTOGRAPHY BY HOLGER OBENAUS

Charleston native Trey Smith has spent most of his life making music, but now it’s his art that “rocks.”

The artist/owner behind Charleston Slate Works, which handcrafts hanging art and tables made from a combination of slate and antique bricks, has been playing drums in local bands for 25 years, including for The Pondering and a little Charleston institution called Plane Jane, which performed its final show on New Year’s Eve.

Now Smith is embarking on a new endeavor inspired by his close friend Regan Blanchard. A few years ago, Smith began to explore ways in which he could branch out from music yet still indulge his creative side. Blanchard, who used to build stepping stones, suggested making custom stones by cutting roofing slate with a 14-inch diamond-blade wet saw.

He taught Smith how to use the saw and, ever since, Smith has been honing his skills. All his tables, art and garden décor are hand cut and fashioned using the same reclaimed materials: a mix of antique brick and roofing slate procured from old homes. The slate comes in shades of purple, green, red or gray.

To the average observer, a brick is just a brick, but Smith recalls that seeing a slice of brick for the first time ignited a creative spark. “When you look at the inside of a brick, you can really see the burnt embers, pockmarks and colors,” he says. “Each slice is a work of art in itself. My materials are antique. Every brick is different. Every piece of slate is different.”

To adorn his tables and pictures, Smith draws on Southern themes—coastal (pelicans, crabs, dolphins), historical Charleston (Rainbow Row, palmetto moons, pineapples) and gardening (hummingbirds, butterflies).

Some designs have special significance to Smith. His pineapple is based on a wooden one made by his grandmother and aunt. Another symbol close to his heart is the iconic Morris Island Lighthouse off Folly Beach, one of the Lowcountry’s most photographed landmarks.

For the garden and patio, Smith makes birdbaths, pavers and decorative stepping stones using his unique combination of slate and antique brick.

Smith’s tables are beautiful. Each design is made with an antique brick border filled in with various hues of mortar and ornamented with colorful slate. One of his favorites is “Downtown Scene,” an antique brick coffee table depicting Rainbow Row. He is passionate about Charleston architecture because it conjures images of blue stone sidewalks, oversize bricks, oystershell tabby mortar and slate roofs.

Smith can make, to exact specifications, whatever a customer wants, in any size— whether the piece is a fan-themed Gamecock coffee table or silhouettes of herons affixed to antique brick. He can restore an existing tabletop or give an old table a fresh look.

Best of all, his tables require very little maintenance. “They last a lifetime,” says Smith. Similarly, his hanging art—thinly sliced brick and thin slate—is lightweight and easy to install; it only needs a nail.

Smith’s craftsmanship, on the other hand, is labor-intensive. He says creating a table or stepping stone is a 15-part process that incorporates masonry techniques that have taken him years to master. “If you look at a stone as you look at a painting, the brick is the frame, the slate is the painting and the stucco is the canvas,” explains Smith.

Despite their aesthetic appeal, Smith underscores that the products he creates are “functional art” that you can put to practical use in your home.

Smith grew up in Charleston, moved to Columbia when he was 10, then returned to the Holy City for college. He graduated from the College of Charleston in 1993 and has resided here ever since.

Despite his new calling as an artist, Smith says he will continue to perform. Art or music— the show must go on.

You can see Smith’s artwork at his Avondale shop and at the W Hampton Brand Gallery on East Bay Street.

Colin McCandless is a freelance writer and editor based in Charleston.