RUSSELL -- Tin is in for Tyler Kilkenny.
Tin ceilings in homes and buildings actually went out of fashion a century ago, replaced by lath and plaster.
But Kilkenny, while visiting his late grandfather's abandoned W.J.L. Kilkenny's General Store in a ghost town, Broomhill, took some of the old tin ceiling home as a memento.
He began playing with it, stripping the layers of paint, shining it up and framing the tin tiles. Family and friends liked them so much he gave them his pieces. That was about 12 years ago. So he started making more.
But it's one thing to love old tin, polish it up and frame it. But can you make money from it?
Kilkenny and Todd Sawyer, who does stained glass, just returned from five weeks of touring art shows in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Toronto. Kilkenny sold 600 pieces. The prices range from $55 for a single tile piece to $650 for large ones or multiple-tile works.
But his biggest break came from IKEA. The furniture giant loved his work so much it chose him as its featured artist in 2009. The payoff? IKEA bought 5,000 pieces, mostly to give to staff. That single order used all the tiles from an entire building that had tin on the ceiling and walls in every room, said Kilkenny.
He also has collectors. (Would you call that tinnitus?) One Brandon man has purchased 27 pieces. Kilkenny, 37, said he has been living off the proceeds of his tin art for the past decade.
He has salvaged tiles from 70 buildings, from Alberta to Ontario. In Manitoba, he has salvaged from buildings in Reston, Lenore, Leonard, High Bluff, Brandon and Winnipeg's Exchange District.
"It's capturing a lost time," Kilkenny said of his art. For that reason, he includes little stories on the backs about where the tin tiles came from. He doesn't paint or change the tin. Its colours are from oxidation of different alloys in the tin. He only heat-seals them to stop rusting if it's begun.
The tin ceilings came from Europe in the later 1800s, starting in New Orleans and working their way up the Eastern Seaboard into Ontario, Kilkenny said. Through use of a steam press, they were stamped with floral designs or intricate patterns, sometimes comprised of ancient Greek motifs such as scrolls and acanthus leaves.
At one time, tin ceilings were a status symbol. But the price had dropped drastically by the time they reached Canada, Kilkenny said. It's highly durable, lasting up to 200 years, and acts as a fire retardant, an important feature with the wood-stove heating of those times.
Recently, Kilkenny, along with Sawyer, embarked on another unlikely venture. They opened a TinHouse coffee shop and gallery in Russell last July. It's a bistro with tables for lunches, designer coffee, wireless Internet and couches around an electric fireplace.
It's all very open, with acid-washed floors and artwork by Kilkenny and Sawyer and other arts and crafts on display and for sale.
One can see this kind of bistro-style café in a city, but it's unusual in a small town such as Russell, with just 1,600 people. "I'm from here," said Kilkenny, as if that explained everything.
Russell gets a lot of tourist traffic in winter, with its Asessippi Ski Hill, as well as in summer, he said. The town is also on a portion of the Yellowhead Highway that sees 2,300 people pass through each day.
Kilkenny's works can be viewed at www.tinhousedesigns.ca.