Julie Nelson grew up on a farm in Riddles Bend, Alabama, where she took walks through the woods with her father. On those walks, Nelson’s father — a surgeon — taught his daughter about nature. “Like a grown up version of a boy scout,” she describes him. Other family members were teachers, too: This is the season to plant okra. This is the way to mold soap. This is the way to hold knitting needles.
When Julie left home, it was to attend Birmingham-Southern College, another family tradition. There, she earned a fine arts degree and a masters in public and private management. Because she landed a job at a promotions firm, she stayed in Birmingham. She got married. She worked 12 years for an insurance company. All the while, in her free time, she made art.
In 2009, Julie was laid off. Her husband Michael owns the office building where his architectural firm is housed on 41st Street South in Avondale, an area that’s recently received attention for its revitalization. Thus began the idea for the Painted Shovel Mercantile.
The Painted Shovel operates as Julie Nelson’s studio space. Michael is “behind the scenes in the business,” Julie says. “He likes to make things, but he is the business person, and I’m the front face.” Julie is the front face and the imagination.
“I wanted to get back into art, making art,” Julie says, remembering the period post-layoff. “Mike and I are both creative people. I felt like we wanted to get back to our roots. We wanted to teach people what I call ‘The Lost Art of Being Appalachian.’ One of the dying arts. Like making soap the old-fashioned way, using lye, vegetable oil or bacon grease. These practical skills that people don’t necessarily have these days but are interested in. Partly due to the recession, maybe. People want to get back to being simple.”
So the Nelsons got to work at getting simple. The space at 400 41st Street South is a conglomeration of the Nelson’s efforts. Michael maintains his office upstairs. The Painted Shovel operates as Julie’s art studio and gallery. Local artists display and sell their work, including a man whose physical handicap is no hindrance for his art — he uses his teeth to braid bracelets.
As for Julie, she makes crafts out of recycled materials, fabrics, wood and glass. Local businesses like the Avondale Brewery and Crestwood Coffee have her unique wooden Christmas trees on display. She constructs ping-pong ball sized seed packets called “seed bombs.”
“The name causes confusion,” Julie says. “So we’ll say they explode with color. The seed bombs have everything the seeds need to grow, minus rainwater. You throw them out, and they grow when the rain comes. They’re intended for deserted lots and alleys and places that need beauty.”
Currently, she’s working on an art series that highlights Alabama’s food.
“The Alabama Department of Tourism has named this the year of food,” Julie says. “We have so many food festivals across the state. I chose as many festivals as I could and have represented them with drawings. You’ve got the chicken and egg festival, an okra festival. A nice little series that represents what Alabama is trying to do.”
Food is something the Nelsons are into. “Food security is a big issue for a lot of people,” Julie says. “We want to be part of that game.” In addition to selling crafty goods, The Painted Shovel also supports sustainable living.
With the motto, “It’s not where you live, but how you live,” the Nelsons offer do-it-yourself urban farming supplies and courses. In addition to the seed bombs and gardening supplies, the Nelsons hope to be a distributor of rooftop gardening systems that allow for lightweight growth.
“We’d like to have a little garden center, too,” Julie says. “As a small business, we know we can’t compete with Home Depot or Lowe’s, so we’ll have to be niche. We’ll offer heirloom seeds. We’re working to have organic compost from J3 Organics, urban farmers in Bessemer. Our plants — perennials, annuals and herbs — will come from a local landscaper who was recently laid off.”
For those interested in honing their urban farming skills, the classes offered (or to be offered) by The Painted Shovel include soap making, quilting, canning, bee keeping and urban foraging. Julie hopes to institute an urban foraging course for the homeless. Recently, Julie led a group of paying foragers through Avondale Park.
“We went to the park and taught our group of people how to forage for food in simple ways,” Julie says. “Everyday, we step over food and don’t recognize it as food. I’ll give you a perfect example: Dandelion leaves. You can fry them up or use them in salads. I call these foods salad extenders. If you’re a thrifty person already, you can go outside and find food. It’s not just for the [homeless] people but people who want to have a nuanced life.”
Artist Vero Vanblaere, owner of Naked Art Gallery in Forest Park, was in attendance for the Avondale Park forage. “It was incredible. So affordable. The class was 30 dollars for three hours of instruction — and that included the food, the eggs and such we used to cook the plants we found. I learned and made new friends, too. I’m pleased to have Julie in town. She seems like someone with a lot of ideas.”
Once a week, Julie teaches art at Red Mountain School. She plans to hire helping hands for the seed bombs through Workshops Inc. The local nonprofit that places persons with disabilities in jobs is special to Julie whose older brother has Down’s Syndrome and lives happily on the farm back in Riddles Bend.
That connection to community and to her family’s way of life influences every aspect of Julie’s venture at the Painted Shovel.
The new year is nearly upon us. Most of us will take a moment to reflect, regretting or reveling the year’s events. Some of us will declare resolutions. For the Nelsons and The Painted Shovel, the new year will be a time of harvest. A time in which Julie hopes her many projects will reach fruition. Maybe some of us will join her and be resolute in getting back to living simply.
The Painted Shovel Mercantile is located at 400 41st Street South [a block from Avondale Park]. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday – Saturday. For more information, visit the Painted Shovel on Facebook or call (205) 593-2083.