Maker Profile: Master Repurposers
Debbie Meritsky and Marc Rotman find joy in giving new life to old and obsolete materials.
by jesse fox mayshark • november 8, 2021
Marc Rotman and Debbie Meritsky moved their home-based business to Knoxville last year.
This holiday season, the Maker City — Knoxville’s coalition of artisans, craftspeople and small-scale manufacturers, supported by the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center and the City of Knoxville — is spotlighting local talent with a weekly Holiday Marketplace. Every Monday, local makers will have works up for bid on Instagram. You can see them here. All proceeds from the sales go to the creators. Compass will be profiling one featured Marketplace maker each Monday through Dec. 20.
Finding a new home and a welcoming community of artisans in East Tennessee.
The studio space at Debbie Meritsky and Marc Rotman’s Fountain City home is full of bits and pieces, odds and ends, large and small objects and items that have only one thing in common: They used to be part of something else.
There’s the full-frame window, for example, that Meritsky is currently decorating as a piece of wall art. There are small squares of textured pebble glass rescued from some renovation or demolition project or another. There is a yellow Corning Conaphore lens, sold in the 1920s as an auto headlamp replacement.
Many of their collected materials do not yet have an assigned use. “It’s really about the individualism of the repurposed item,” Rotman says.
The couple relocated from the Finger Lakes of New York to Knoxville last year, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was starting. They sold a bed-and-breakfast they had operated for nearly 15 years and settled in East Tennessee after having enjoyed an earlier visit.
They had already begun an arts-and-crafts business built around reused materials while running the bed-and-breakfast. In Knoxville, they rebranded the company as Master Repurposers, selling “handmade unconventional art.”
They have spent the past year renovating their stylish ranch house on Black Oak Ridge and making inroads into local art markets. A necklace designed by Meritsky is featured in today’s Maker City Holiday Marketplace.
“I call it ‘Circus,’ because it’s just kind of … circus-y,” Meritsky says with a laugh. Its pendant is built around a piece of enameled metal that she had found somewhere or other, surrounded by bright beads. “I find stuff, and so this was a focus piece. And that’s where the rest of it comes together, I bring color and texture and sizes and whatever falls into place.”
They each have their specialties. Rotman is the glass worker, using everything from old tail lights to random pieces of scrap to assemble stained-glass windows and hanging artwork. Meritsky makes jewelry and decorated window sashes and, really, anything that catches her imagination.
Their materials come from a variety of places. “If Craigslist is offering something for free and I can get out there, I jump in my car or the van and head out, go grab what we can,” Meritsky says. At garage or estate sales, she’ll head for the most unlikely places — basements or garages or attics, anything where unusual things with no obvious market value might catch her eye.
Both are originally from Cleveland, Ohio. Growing up, Rotman’s father worked in the scrap business, which early on taught him to see potential where others saw only trash.
“You look at how much gets tossed into the landfill,” Rotman says. “And through that training as a young child I see value in most everything. That led me into the artistic inspiration for what I do.”
Since arriving in Knoxville, the two have made inroads with the local artisan community and found enthusiastic patrons at pop-up markets around the region.
“The Maker City (team) has been incredibly receptive and welcoming and kind to us,” Meritsky says. “And we’re seeing that with most everyone.”
They also want to welcome people into their home studio, where they have already conducted stained-glass classes. At their old bed-and-breakfast, they offered experience packages where, for example, a bridal party could spend an afternoon doing art projects.
Meritsky, who has a culinary background, also has a second business selling homemade organic granola under the name Eat My Granola. She said her approach to art in a lot of ways is shaped by her approach to food.
“I refer to items as ingredients, because of my chef’s background that’s what I see them as,” she says. “So when those ingredients come and go, like a season of produce, I enjoy that. I like seeing an empty container so I can refill it with something else.”