Working in his studio — otherwise known as a garage — at Allen Court on Wednesday, Dave Cooper is wearing steel-toed boots, work gloves and a respirator mask as he paints a table he’s laboring over. The heat of the noon sun radiates outside as a small fan on his work bench continuously blows air on him.
Magnets with the phrase “Mountain Justice” can be seen on a few totes and a miniature refrigerator in the back of his studio amongst a sea of boxes, a bicycle and a lone brightly colored pallet bench.
That bench is similar to about half a dozen benches that appeared at Lextran bus stops late last year. Cooper made those and roughly 100 others that he has placed throughout the state.
Cooper, 56, has lived in Lexington since 1990, and is a retired engineer who is passionate about environmental rights.
In 1998, he became involved in campaigns against mountaintop removal after seeing its effects in West Virginia. He’s also the founder of the Whippoorwill Festival, an event that teaches skills for Earth-friendly living and promotes sustainable living.
Those living in Lexington may know Cooper for a different reason. He is the artist responsible for the pallet benches which began appearing at Lextran bus stops, and across the city, in December.
Cooper said he had never received 100 percent support on anything he’s worked on until the benches. He mentioned supportive comments he received online from the Herald-Leader’s story on the benches in early January.
“I felt like maybe I had hit upon a need in Lexington to make our city more pedestrian-friendly,” he said.
The handful of benches that he placed at Lextran bus stops is only one part of his reach. He has placed about 20 benches around Lexington. And he has built and placed about 100 benches around the state, including in Irvine and Whitesburg.
Not all of his benches, however, have remained in their original spots. Cooper said Lextran removed thebenches he placed at bus stops. He realizes that Lextran probably has rules they had to abide by, and that concerns for safety also likely prompted their removal, he felt he was doing something to support Lextran by offering bus riders a place to sit.
His mother-in-law, Grace Draus, said that given the work Cooper puts into making the benches and obtaining the wood, he’s doing more good than harm.
“I don’t see any reason why they should take them away,” Draus said.
Jill Barnett, Lextran assistant general manager, met with Cooper in April and talked about the process Lextran has to go through to put benches or bus shelters at its stops. This involves obtaining proper permitting and citations approved by various city and state entities, depending on the classification of the road.
“We didn’t know if they (the benches) were properly permitted or not,” Barnett said, but the benches were returned to him.
Back at his studio, Cooper demonstrated how to make a bench from a pallet. Before starting, he spoke about safety tips, such as not trying to pry the boards from the pallets, because the spiral-drive nails used in the pallets are “really wicked.”
“It’s a good workout, you know,” Cooper said as he sawed a pallet down the middle.
The entire process of transforming pallet to bench took roughly one hour and 25 minutes. Painting the benches, however, takes more time, about five hours, depending on the detail of the decoration, Cooper said.
He learned how to turn pallets into furniture at one of the Whippoorwill Festival’s workshops. When he put his first bench on North Limestone Street, people came up to thank him and were grateful, he said.
For Cooper, using pallets to create the benches is just as much about providing people a safe place to sit as it is about sustainability.
According to the National Wooden Pallet & Container Association, there are more than 1.8 billion pallets in service in the United States each day. Many of these pallets end up being reused, but many go out of service, Cooper said.
“We’re cutting down a lot of trees in Kentucky, and other states, to turn them into pallets once and then throw them away,” he said. “Let’s make useful things of pallets and stop throwing them away.”
Cooper continues to make pallet benches and teach others the art. Most recently he taught a class at a sustainability event in Huntington, W.Va.
As he continues his work, Cooper said, he hopes to see Lexington transform into an area more attuned to the needs of pedestrians.
“And we have to provide people amenities to rest,” he said.