For years Tamara Havermahl marveled at the time and effort people put into beautifying the exterior of their homes.
She also wondered why they would plop an unsightly mailbox in front of it.
She didn’t have to look far to find one to gussy up.
“My mailbox was a 20-year-old wood shell with a metal mailbox inside,” Havermahl said. “So I took the wood shell and used the paint for the exterior of my home and used rocks to build a chimney.”
The result was a striking replica of Havermahl’s home in Pinckney that also served its purpose as a mailbox.
That was three years ago, and since then Havermahl has designed and created dozens of mailboxes and birdhouses, a pursuit that has invigorated a longtime love of art and pulled her from the depths of depression.
“It was a good opportunity to start filling my time and my mind, so art gave me that escape where you get your right brain going and you forget what time it is,” said Havermahl, who is a research communicator with the Department of Cell & Developmental Biology in Michigan Medicine.
“It’s such a beautiful thing.”
Havermahl finds beauty in ordinary things and uses them to craft functional masterpieces. The bark of birch trees is her favorite resource with which to work, and that explains why her current mailbox is a solid birch one with a surfing gnome theme.
She posted a photo on Etsy of the first mailbox she refurbished, and an admirer in Massachusetts purchased it. She has sold mailboxes to buyers in Florida and California.
To add color or other elements, she selects from the plethora of riches she’s collected over the years while hiking, such as walnuts, acorn shells, pinecones, dried flowers, shells and rocks.
Last year she and her husband visited Joshua Tree National Park in California, and she asked the owner of their AirBnB if she could collect some rocks from around the property. She shipped about 25 pounds of rocks back to Michigan.
“Most of the time I have no idea what I’m going to do with things I find,” she said. “I don’t draw out what I’m going to design before I do it. My creative instincts take eclectic items I’ve found in nature to assemble them in a free-form manner.”
The potential themes for her mailbox and birdhouse creations are seemingly endless. She has built birdhouses around the Minions characters, mermaids and fairies. Some of the mailbox themes she has explored are “Jurassic Park,” “Lord of the Rings,” and downtown Chelsea.
The latter was a massive undertaking of roughly 40 hours that resulted in a 26-pound structure with roads, bricks, railroad tracks with crossing gates, street lights, plants and just about anything related to the village of Chelsea — including a “JIFFY” Mix sign on grain silos.
Havermahl said the most tedious and least enjoyable part of the process is applying the two coats of epoxy to each piece so it can withstand harsh and various weather conditions. She said the only element the mailboxes are not impervious to is sunshine, so the gloss will fade over time if exposed to direct sunlight. Clear nail polish can reestablish the shine.
“The epoxy is made for wood boats, so it’s the strongest thing you can get for the environment,” she said. “But it is time consuming, and I have to turn them to get into every nook and cranny. We pretty much have epoxy on every door knob in the house.”
Havermahl discovered art as a young child looking to ward off boredom. She recalled a pantry in her childhood home that stored shelves of canned food. She took it upon herself to remake all the labels of those cans.
“Who does that?” she laughed. “That was how I entertained myself, and I got lost in it and really enjoyed it.”
She received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in graphic design from Michigan State University and a master’s degree in communication from Eastern Michigan University before embarking on a 17-year career with Gift of Life Michigan. Her proudest achievement there was being part of the effort to have the organ-donor heart included on the front of Michigan driver’s licenses.
From there, she worked for the Michigan Institute for Clinical & Health Research for nine years before moving to the School of Social Work. Following a family crisis, Havermahl found herself in a deep depression and laid off around the timing of the pandemic.
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“I was literally blown away that could happen to me,” she said of the depression. “When it does, you don’t tell anyone because you feel guilty. Why should I be depressed and not want to get out of bed? So I started coloring in a coloring book, remembering how I once designed new can labels. I needed something elementary that I could do without much thought.”
She eventually found the desire to resume another childhood activity she shared with her mother: macramé.
“We’d sit in front of the TV and you’d have this cork pin board and you’d make things you can hang your plants in,” she said. “I got really into that again, and I have a lot of that on the walls.”
The wheels quickly turned to thoughts of mailboxes, and that’s when she decided to undertake redesigning her own. From there, she launched HipKNOTic Design, through which she sells her custom-made mailboxes and birdhouses, along with sculptures, flowerpots and furniture.
Havermahl estimates she has made about 75 birdhouses and close to 50 mailboxes. She will display some of her works at the Motor City Comic Con on May 19-21 at Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi.
She said she plans to further explore her art and has found kinship in the Emerging Artist Program through The Guild of Artists & Artisans led by the Gutman Gallery in downtown Ann Arbor.
“I’m getting faster and more efficient at making sculptures because I know when to stop instead of struggling and I know how to keep my ideas going,” she said. “I consider the mailbox as my canvas and I’m the sculptor.”