A kid's imagination can turn an old tire, rope and tree into the perfect swing, or a bottomless bucket and wooden pole into an NBA basketball goal. Gaines Steer is not a kid, but his artistic vision opens doors to a world of beauty for adults. His amazing designs with wrought-iron gates and fences and stained-glass windows can turn the average home and garden into a peaceful haven for its occupants. Steer's land of creative expression is "The Last Unicorn."
A walking tour of his five-acre outdoor showroom of wares in Chapel Hill gets buyers' wheels turning with ideas for the next great addition to their homes--wrought-iron bed frames and headboards, fireplaces, tables, trellises or--how about a fountain made of a bathtub surrounded by olive-oil jugs? In addition to Steer's vast array of merchandise, a stroll on his property quickly becomes an adventure. A sign directs you to the "Yellow Brick Road," which is, of course, a path made with bricks that he painted yellow. The parking lot is actually a volleyball court, net and all. There's his "secret garden" of quiet tranquillity, which he says everyone should have to free themselves of life's daily grind.
The inside of Steer's 1,252-square-foot country home, which he helped design and build, reveals his appreciation for stained glass. Along with the tables and wall hangings, there are stained-glass-designed tablemats that match the windows. Throughout his home, there is color. Steer's fascination with unicorns is evidenced by the picture of a unicorn against the stained-glass window and the light-blue canvas floor cloth with white unicorns on it. He also has a replica of a rare tapestry, which has symbolic plants and designs surrounding the unicorn. The original hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Steer initially called his business "The Last Unicorn" because of the magical and mystical stories about the animal. He believed it would be a great marketing strategy. And it worked.
"All of the mystique about the unicorn is much deeper than my business," he says. "It surpassed my expectations, and I didn't know it was going to be as powerful as it is. The unicorn, next to the elephant, is the most written-about animal that exists. It's mentioned seven times in the Bible. Stories and pictures of unicorns are found in every culture, including current culture. Five or six books are written about them every year or so."
Steer buys wrought iron and stained glass from people whose business is demolition and who have access to a lot of these materials. And he adds, "I buy only those things I think are artistic and beautiful." His great networking skills, essential for any antiques dealer, help him stay on top of the business, especially since he doesn't sell from a catalog. He acquires items from the East Coast and the northern states (mostly from Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Delaware). In Baltimore, for example, there are many row houses with signature stained-glass windows that originated in Europe. When the houses were demolished for urban renewal, those windows became available. He's also obtained gates from a brownstone in New York. Recently, he broadened his scope with imported items, such as gates from England and Persian iron.
Just who is this man with the deep appreciation of art and unicorns?
"I'm a community organizer by orientation, training and experience, which means I've had a lot of different, interesting jobs," Steer says. "I'm a mobile social worker who works with human issues and problems and helps organize around community needs. I've worked with pregnant teens, alcoholics, developmentally handicapped individuals and in the war on poverty." He has also taught at five colleges, including Elon College, where he taught creative writing.
Steer started his own business because he wanted to be independent, work at home, pursue his hobbies and work within his values, which include recycling and seeing the art in what others may consider old and useless.
"I sell art and ideas. I have five acres of this sort of fantasyland of architectural artifacts. People come to my place and look for what will work in their setting," he says. "Most of us, at least in this culture, want to customize the place we live, whether we rent or own it. No one wants his or her place to look like everyone else's. They want it to reflect them.
"This house reflects me because I helped build it, and I put my stuff in it, including a door that was in my two previous houses. It's a small house, but that's part of my values--that small is beautiful. I'm showing people by example that whoever they are, they can creatively alter the atmosphere in their homes and yards by choosing things that are artistic. There are two magic things that you can do to dramatically customize your home: Add an iron gate and a stained-glass window. They also increase the value of your property."
Customers are encouraged to be involved in the creation of Steer's work. If they want a table shortened or lengthened or painted a certain way, it can be done. He'll also go to your home to see what your needs are and "audition" some of his wares. A customer might have a vacant backyard or a garage wall that needs a new look, and Steer will make suggestions. He calls this "exterior design."
Steer continues to combine his love of art with his desire to help the community. His part-time crew includes people hired from the homeless shelter. This gives them a chance to learn various skills that may be useful to them later on.
"Everybody's called to serve their fellow men and women, whatever their arena is. I'm a benign character who sees community, and I have the eye of an artist," Steer says. "I see art and I present that to people so that they can improve their own environment, and I try to do it with integrity. Art is the window through which our hearts and souls express themselves.
"The heart is really a tangible part of us--not just the part that's pumping blood. It's the part of us that's unique. All religions teach that we are one, and art is a way to express that without using words. The right brain is where the art in us lives."
The Last Unicorn is open every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Customers can call for appointments at other times (968-8440) or check out the Web site (www.thelastunicorn.com).