Finding something in nothing: Mike Ankeny creates lamps out of whatever he can find

Published 6:09 am Saturday, January 19, 2019

Story and photos by Eric Johnson

It’s no secret that Mike Ankeny is well known in Austin.

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He’s owner of one of the Ankeny Mini Marts in Austin and member of the Mower County Board of Commissioners. In one way or another, most people can probably place how they know Ankeny.

However, the Austin ArtWorks Center might not be one of those places, unless you are one of those who have happened to purchase one of his lamps.

An assortment of ornamental lamps, built out of a variety of things some might call junk, are currently for sale at the ArtWorks Center, and they have all been constructed by Ankeny, who has added artist to his repertoire.

“It’s just kind of fun,” Ankeny said as we stood in the ArtWorks Center talking about the pieces he had recently delivered. “In school I always enjoyed shop classes. People liked what I was doing and it’s pretty popular now.”

The lamps Mike Ankeny makes are built out of a variety of items from faucet handles to metal piping.

On first inspection, each piece resembles nothing more than a lamp you might find out of the 1930s or earlier. And maybe that’s colored by some of the items he uses.

Look closer and you’ll see gears and levels and even things like old fire extinguishers. Almost all of the items Ankeny uses to construct his lamps are built from these kinds of things that he more or less finds either lying around or at places like swap meets.

In fact, it was nothing more than happenstance that led him down this road.

He would often walk past items at flea markets or events like Gold Rush Days in Oronoco, Iowa.  He would see these things and ask himself a pretty simple question: What could he make with something?

“I saw a gear once and thought it would make a nice lamp base,” Ankeny said.

It really took a jump on a trip to Kansas City about two years ago. While there, he visited the warehouse district and an event called First Fridays. There were galleries, studios, artists on display, food and drink.

Ankeny said there was a whole assortment of items to pick up and it was also the place he had the gear-lamp base idea.

It got him thinking along the lines of making more items like this.

One of Mike Ankeny’s pieces is displayed in the window, built out of an electric fencer.

Of the pieces currently on display downtown, a single piece stands out a little more than the others, and maybe it’s because it’s one of the first things you see when you enter the center.

An old outboard motor rests on a stand, looking like it was dragged right out of the 1950s. Attached to it are two blue light bulbs.

It’s among some of the bigger pieces he’s made, though the majority of lamps he makes look ready to find centerpiece status on a night stand or coffee table.

Another lamp appears to be affixed to a brass base, giving it a striking and bright appearance. The base is actually that of an old fire extinguisher.

However, everything on the lamps looks as if it belongs. Some have no traditional switches to turn them on; instead, many rely on things like faucet handles you turn as if you are turning on water.

He’s made several pieces for family, friends and a couple businesses, including a floor-standing lamp for Little Thistle Brewing Co. in Rochester, though in terms of direction of the piece, he admitted with a grin, “I had no clue where I was going.”

Some of the unique finds in Austin that he’s used for his creations have come from the Downtown Utility Plant. Austin Utilities came to Ankeny asking if he could do something with parts from control panels and switches. Those works are currently displayed at the newer Austin Utilities building by Todd Park.

This 1950s outboard motor was turned into a blue-lighted lamp.

Whatever the piece, it’s clear Ankeny is largely doing it for himself as much as he is for potential customers. How fast he gets a project done sometimes depends either on materials on hand, how busy he is or if he even has a fully hashed-out idea.

“I’ll pick that stuff up and then leave it sit,” he said. “Then a couple days later I’ll walk by and think, ‘Maybe I should do something with this.’”

Ankeny doesn’t really commit when asked how long it takes to finish a piece. In a way, it gets done when it gets done.

“It depends,” Ankeny said. “I could get it whipped out in an afternoon if I had all the stuff.”

While Ankeny will pick up items he needs from places like flea markets, he said the materials used on his lamps is a combination of buying and scavenging.

This story is featured in the January-Febraury edition of Austin Living magazine, out now.

To date, Ankeny estimates he’s built about 50 lamps, and with each lamp he tries to keep as close to original as he can. He may buff and shine the items, but he likes leaving them alone as much as possible.

“I try not to do much painting,” he said.

He also doesn’t have much interest in going to art shows and things like that. In a lot of ways, creating these works of art is a hobby as much as it is to sell.

Instead, Ankeny keeps his lamps close to home, selling them mostly at the ArtWorks Center. This shows how much he wants to help the town he lives in.

“I don’t want to mess around with shipping,” Ankeny said. “I’m supporting something local.”

That being said, Ankeny has found and sold at least one piece that’s seen some travel. Across the pond to be exact.

A lady from London asked Ankeny about his lamps, but then feared she wouldn’t be able to get it home.

“She bought it anyway,” he said.

Ultimately, his interest in creating art out of everyday pieces, both modern and antique, has served as a neat way to pass time for Ankeny.

“It’s kind of fun,” he said. “People get a kick out of them.”