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    Jeremy Semones and I meet on an early spring day at his shop du jour, this one at 12th and West Main streets in the Portland neighborhood. Semones can count a handful of progressively larger locations he has inhabited since founding his business, Core Design, in 2010, and this is by far the largest — big enough, it seems, to serve as the hangar for a commercial aircraft.

    In Louisville, Semones pioneered repurposing shipping containers — those 20- or 40-foot-long metal boxes stacked on cargo ships — for a variety of human-scale uses. Among his container projects: a one-car garage, a whimsical replica of a boombox and a three-container assemblage that serves as the entryway to the Copper & Kings brandy distillery. When I visit his Portland shop near downtown, however, it is strewn with hundreds of two-inch-diameter carbon-steel pipes carefully customized by Semones’ team. They’ll fit them together in sections as the Louisville Knot, a $175,000 public sculpture and interactive art installation that will run the length of the underpass at Main and Ninth streets and visually connect the Central Business District with neighborhoods to the west.

    Metro Government funded $150,000 of the project, with an additional $25,000 contribution from the Rotary Club, according to public-art administrator Sarah Lindgren, who says the goal is to make the underpass more inviting and safer for pedestrians. Philadelphia-based Interface Studio Architects emerged among five finalists with a winning plan for a flowing, 150-foot-long, sculpture-quality piece lit from beneath, painted a bright orange. A principal at the firm calls it “large street furniture” expected to lure children to climb on it and ride its built-in swing. Adults can sit on level sections or celebrate a birthday around a feature designed to look like giant candles. ISA architect Brian Phillips anticipates food trucks parking in the area for events in an adjacent space.

    Each 16-foot section in production at Semones’ shop is actually three separate pieces precisely welded together. Identical sections clamped together and welded to ground plates create the Knot’s curves and “bench seats,” while almost impossibly twisted pipes spell out the word “Louisville.”

    Semones studies the jumble of unconnected and unpainted pipe on the concrete shop floor. All he can say of the Knot is: “It’s living up to its name.” He adds, “The prototype was simple — and then things changed.”

     

    “And then things changed” is not a new phrase for Semones. As we climb into his Volkswagen CC for a tour of Core Design projects on display throughout town, he informs me that another space nearby where he stores shipping containers and does other work had been burglarized the evening before. Equipment he values at several thousand dollars was heisted and hauled through openings cut in the surrounding chain-link fence.

    Semones is trying to roll with this latest setback. The 46-year-old has a week’s worth of reddish beard and similarly colored, closely cropped hair mostly hidden under an all-black ball cap. Tiny wheels of ebony stud his ears. A tattoo depicting a musical scale and notes peeks out from his right sleeve. His black cargo pants and hoodie exude Eminem-like street cred. For all of the spark that ignites him during creative moments, a weariness, even a bit of fatalism, seeps in and flattens his voice as he talks about the business side of things. He’s feeling a bit overwhelmed. “I’m at that point where I can’t turn the jobs over fast enough to make enough money to hire more people,” he says as we approach the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage at 18th Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard. “You know what I mean? It’s kind of a catch-22.

    “It’s maddening. It really is. There’s a part of it that’s challenging and I’m very adaptable. My backstory tells you a whole lot about that because, when I was growing up, I went state to state to state. I’m a chameleon of sorts. Sometimes it’s a little rough, but it’s good in a pinch, you know?”

    Depending on the project and the perspective of a particular client, Semones is described variously as a fabricator, as a craftsman or as an artist. Surely, he is all three. “I guess there’s a part in me about making my mark,” he says. “But I’m not a traditional artist.”

    We’re now in front of the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage at the bus stop that he helped build. Using his favorite metal — the same weathering steel that shipping containers and ships themselves are made from — he fashioned a striking exterior to the stop’s natural wood interior, triangular on the street-facing front and rectilinear in the rear, with large planter boxes on top designed to be filled with colorful flowers.

    The showpiece bus stop, funded by a $50,000 grant from the Louisville Metro Housing Authority and headed up by architect Paul Sirek of the Louisville firm Luckett & Farley, started with the architect’s model. Then Semones entered the picture to, as Sirek says, “field fabricate” the steel frame. “I don’t think we could have done it with anybody else,” Sirek says. “He’s able to see things three-dimensionally. We had a 3-D model, but he actually sat down and figured out all of the details and how they came together. He was able to look at the design and tell us a better way to construct it.”

    The weathering steel develops a rust-like appearance over time but is actually resistant to corrosion. Despite these natural properties, Semones expresses dissatisfaction with the way it looks following a tough winter. “We need to come back and sand it because it’s doing some weird stuff with the patina,” he says.

     

    We next drive by the Centerstone addiction-recovery center on South Preston Street downtown. Formerly known by the familiar acronym JADAC (pronounced jay-dack), it was a place Semones knew well as a young man. In front of the building, he points out a metal sculpture he made that rises like a palm from a rusted, bark-colored post. Branches in this patina give way to large snowflake-like leaves of shiny stainless steel. “I call it a reflecting tree. The stainless steel is kind of folded so you can see yourself in it,” Semones says.

    “I’ve been through JADAC three times. I got kicked out the first two times. The first time I got kicked out I wouldn’t get out of bed. I was so — I don’t know — wore out from drugs and alcohol,” he continues. “The second time I got kicked out I caught a ping-pong ball on fire and they thought that I was a danger to all the other clients in there and they kicked me out. The third time I finally graduated. I got through and stayed sober.” Semones says he has remained sober since 2005, when he was 32.

    He has, as he says, “been around recovery since high school.” But his bingeing on booze and various drugs accelerated during the years he worked as a sous chef, including at Napa River Grill and the now-defunct Artemisia and Dietrich’s. He says it reached a point where he became homeless and unemployable. After finally sticking with treatment and sobriety, Semones left the restaurant industry and caught on with Ron Metts Construction. He gained a few years experience until the 2008 economic downturn led to his lay-off. “I needed to have a place to go at a certain time, and I just needed to do work,” he says of construction during his early days of recovery. “It was a safe environment for me to work in.”

    What came next would set the stage for Core Design. He bought a welding machine and taught himself some basic metalworking. He built a cargo rack for the roof of his car and found that he liked manipulating such durable material. Working with metal tapped a craftsman’s aptitude and problem-solving skillset he well may have inherited from his mother’s father, whose aerospace credits include being on the design team of the guidance system for the surface-to-air intercept missiles that were U.S. Department of Defense mainstays in the 1950s and ’60s. “He’s almost a spitting image of what my dad looked like,” says Semones’ mother, Jaci Gillespie, who raised her only child as a single mother.

    She recalls a grade-school Semones having his images of Derby horses selected for a Derby Festival children’s art show. He also did drawings inspired by AC/DC and Metallica. “Kind of a Gothic disturbance thing,” she says, adding, “As an artist, he was kind of talented from the get-go.”

    She says others in the family have struggled with addiction. “It runs in the family,” Gillespie says. “For Jeremy, I think he’s finally the one to have stopped the train...I’m really proud of that.”

    In 2008, Semones’ friends employed him to put up outdoor fencing and design the metal sign for the opening of Zanzabar, the bar and venue at the edge of the Schnitzelburg neighborhood. He built a barbecue smoker at the Frankfort Avenue Beer Depot. Another early project was a viewing platform and support structure for an 18-foot orchard ladder made of redwood, which today stands on the Crestwood property of art collector Al Shands. Meant to provide an enhanced perspective of a 120-foot-long earth sculpture by Maya Lin (she of the Vietnam Memorial), the ladder became an art piece itself and made Semones a word-of-mouth craftsman sought out by well-heeled local homeowners. They’ve since called on him for a variety of indoor furnishings and fixtures, as well as functional outdoor showpieces such as fire pits, planters and iron gates.

    In 2015, Semones made local headlines when he fabricated a shipping container into a giant 1980s-style boombox, outfitted with a tape deck that harbored a functioning DJ booth. The boombox rolled down Broadway in that year’s Pegasus Parade. Semones put that container and others at a since-discontinued outdoor event space called ReSurfaced. Earlier this year, a new storage facility for homeless people obtained some of the containers, and Semones did repairs and installed lockers. “I gave them a really good rate,” he says.

     

    As we head to Copper & Kings on East Washington Street in Butchertown, Semones reveals more of his backstory, which includes five childhood years in Texas with his mother and step-father, as well as two years of boarding school in Santa Barbara, California, as a pre-teen. He was back in Louisville by his high school years and attended Jeffersontown High, but never graduated.

    “I got my GED. I couldn’t do school. I couldn’t sit still. Nothing interested me, and by that point I smoked a lot of pot,” he says. “I don’t even care if you say I’m in recovery. All I want to do is: If I can help anybody know that you just keep putting one foot in front of the other no matter what happens…you just keep truckin’.”

    Copper & Kings, founded in 2014, hired local architect Ted Payne to envision a novel, street-facing design for the space leading to the distillery’s nondescript, red-brick building at the back of the property. When shipping containers came into play for the gift shop and tour headquarters, Semones got the call. Payne says that, unlike other metal fabricators in the area, Semones was willing to work onsite and had experience with containers. “He brings a lot of energy, there’s no doubt about that,” Payne says. Semones cut a trio of containers to various sizes and welded them into a modernist portico that frames a walkway. The two grounded containers (one of which is the gift shop) are painted in a lively orange and topped by a jet-black overhead container.

    The boombox Semones built now sits on a perch above a second-story outdoor wooden deck at Gravely Brewing Co. on Baxter Avenue, the next stop on our tour. As we drive in that direction, Semones reflects on a business that has never followed a plan. “I didn’t set out to start a business,” he says. “I just kept moving my feet and it turned into a business.”

    He talks about finding a more solid niche in a growing market for the reuse of shipping containers. (Most containers he’s worked with have already been filled one time with overseas cargo, then sold off at the port.) He has been in discussions with potential partners about building homes or affordable startup locations for entrepreneurs, using the containers that sort of act like attachable and stackable giant Legos. Such adaptations are already happening in places like Las Vegas and Tucson. You can even buy a prefabricated home made from a shipping container on Amazon; I recently saw one listed there for $36,000. Semones is already dreaming up creative interior furnishings for such small quarters and mentions one: a set of wall shelves that can be folded down, Murphy bed-like, to serve as a table during dining hours.

    At a stoplight, he reaches in the backseat to grab architectural drawings of a steel Quonset hut that may be one of his next commissions. When sought out by the client who wants it built, Semones gave his typical response: “OK, I’ll give it a try.” He adds, “Again, I’m just letting the spiritual flow happen. I just keep putting one foot in front of the other.”

    Semones says that he’s a better worker than he is a boss, that he’s most engaged when he has a welder or a buffer in hand. “It just puts me in the moment, slows down my heart rate,” he says. “It slows the constant racing of my mind. I feel better under the hood doing the work than I do being the boss.”

    At Gravely, steel panels customized by Semones encase the front door. On one of those panels the name “gravely” is printed in a lowercase typesetter’s font, shining in relief against the rust-colored surface. Inside the brewery, which opened in 2017, Semones points out the steel washroom sinks and countertops he fashioned. “I’m hired as a contractor to do things,” he says. “I get a chance to be creative, but there’s a utilitarian aspect to it.” Outside, the sight of the boom box brings a smile to his face. He seems pleased to have a favorite piece still on public display.

    The notion of following his muse into full-time artistic pursuits occasionally grasps him. “You have to be really good to be a full-time artist and make the kind of money you want,” he says, “but I’ve got some ideas. That’s going to be for my retirement. I want to do them at my pace. They’re layers, different substrates, different types of materials. And basically all that it is is, you’ve got positive space and you’ve got negative space. So you just keep layering, layer upon layer, and all of those layers will create an image of positive and negative space.”

    I decide to not ask for further explanation.

    Our tour concludes at Oneness Sneaker Boutique on Bardstown Road in the Highlands. The Lexington streetwear retailer hired Semones to construct oversize metal clothing racks and other accessories for its Louisville shop. One piece, dangling above a rack, is a neon-colored plastic silhouette of Michael Jordan flying toward a dunk, Nike-image style. Semones spots a similar open space above another rack and suggests he can make a silhouette of the business’s oversize- O logo, then purchases a pair of bright-purple sneakers on the way out the door.

    He is unfiltered and uncalculating. You get the sense that Semones puts equal effort into a $50 and a $50,000 job. He says his portfolio is now built, and he’d like to streamline his business. He’s engaged to be married and has a preschool-aged daughter, Layla, at home near Seneca High School with his wife-to-be and a grade-school-aged daughter, Elisa, from his previous marriage, whom he sees every other weekend. He’s looking forward to his first vacation in four years, a trip to the Florida Keys scheduled for the week of the Kentucky Derby.

    “I want to simplify a little bit,” he says. “Honestly, I don’t know what (income) I make. I don’t make a whole lot. But I do think about how to retire and how to put my youngest one into Catholic school, at least kindergarten and elementary, to get her exposed to it.”

     

    A week or so later I return to the West Main Street shop he has rented for the Knot project. At a far end of the shop, one crewmember paints pieces bright orange, while a second employee up front does final welds and finish-grinding. Semones looks a bit stressed. The project is not running on schedule. In a few days, some of its painted sections will be moved to the underpass. That’s where the steel meets the road, so to speak, and the modifications he’s making as fabricator must fit together onsite to form the architect drawings.

    Early on, the architects produced a prototype of the structure and sent it to Semones. “I did one section that probably took me two days,” he says. “I thought, ‘This’ll be easy.’” But then came changes and a second prototype for which, he says, he underestimated his costs in time and materials. He soon realized he couldn’t do it in sections in the smaller shop he had set up at the time, so he moved into the huge space on West Main, where he could fit the full length of the Knot. He thought up ways to splice together some pipes at the installation, where welding would be impossible, and solved the problem of grounding the piece by welding lower sections to heavy steel plates. Now, he’s anticipating the challenge of fitting sections together from front to back and having them all remain level. Any pipes even just a quarter of an inch out of alignment will, as they’re connected down the line, threaten to compound that variance to untenable dimensions.

    In the end, Semones will have summoned all of his skills — as fabricator, as craftsman, even as artist — to untangle the Knot. “Probably the best way to put it: Jeremy is literally doing something that we couldn’t find somebody with a computer to do,” says Brian Phillips, the architect who has been working with him. “He’s fearless in the right way. He’s willing to take things on that others wouldn’t.”

    This originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "Heavy Mettle." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photos by Mickie Winters, mickiewinters.com

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