This Ste. Genevieve artist sees possibilities where others see trash. Sam Conlon, owner of Only Child Original and two other shops in the historic downtown, loves to dumpster dive to find treasure to create new art.

Carefully picking her way through the local dump, Ste. Genevieve artist Sam Conlon gestures at a dented and road-worn hubcap.

Venturing deeper into the repository of the old and unwanted, her eyes light with a smile as she spies a 55-gallon oil drum.

Sam is a self-professed dumpster diver, a creative thinker. The materials that awaken her vision are derived from what others discard. Simply put, Sam gathers her art supplies from other people’s trash.

“My 12-year-old son sees a dumpster, and before I can say anything he yells, ‘Don’t do it, Mom. Mom, no! No! NO!’ ”

Sam always pleads her case. “There are possibilities in those dumpsters,” she says, explaining that construction-site dumpsters are her personal favorites, the holy grail of junk, loaded to the brim with old pipes, wire, ductwork, wooden pallets, and more.

As an only child, Sam spent her childhood traveling the world with her parents. Twenty years ago—living in a tiny basement apartment in San Francisco and working as a street performer—she embarked on a cross-country road trip with a friend. Serendipity struck when the duo stopped briefly in Ste. Genevieve, a locale neither had ever heard of. The moment Sam peered into the windows of a vacant downtown building, gazing in at two walls of exposed brick, she felt destined to restore the original beauty of the historic property and make Ste. Genevieve her new home.

That property, now known as Only Child Originals, is but one facet of a grand plan to create items of beauty and support local artists. Sam is restoring three historic Ste. Genevieve structures, an ongoing process in Missouri’s oldest city. One building houses Rust, a gallery that displays not only Sam’s work but that of five other local women as well. Another is the site of Sadie, Sam’s welding and metal workshop. The third is home to Beanik Cafe and an upstairs apartment.

Sam’s resourcefulness has made an impression on grade-school students in Ste. Genevieve. In what has become an annual field trip, local third-graders collect recyclable materials and present them to Sam; she then transforms them into treasures at her welding and metalwork shop. Students delight in seeing the beautiful luminaries and corrugated-tin lights
revitalized from trash—displayed at Rust.

“I think I’m a good example to artists that you can not only make a living but also do good for your community and planet,” she says.

Sam credits her mother, Jean Shattuck, for her artistic abilities.

“My mother is the most creative person I’ve ever met,” she declares. “And she’s brilliantly smart and wickedly funny.”

Only Child Originals sells Jean’s jewelry, crocheted items, and floor cloths, along with Sam’s handmade jewelry and garden art. Customers can visit Sam’s behind-the-studio backyard to get ideas on how to display her colorful creations.

Sam never planned to be an artist, yet she’s always been artistic. She never planned on making it a career. Although she made her first pair of earrings at age 4, she didn’t sell her first pair until age 35.

What she inadvertently discovered is that the passion and expression of art gives her an inner peace that is inaccessible via other outlets.

“Creativity gives me the ability to turn a throwaway item into art that people will enjoy for a lifetime,” she says. “The satisfaction is irreplaceable.”

Article originally published in the January/February 2018 issue of Missouri Life. Photos by Pamela Clifton.