Onus Art Projects | Turning trash into treasure

Adam Robison, Dallas Grate and Myles in front of their freshly painted bus. | Kayla Anderson

Onus Art Projects owners Adam Robison and Dallas Grate take the discarded and reinvent it into whatever strikes their fancy, whether it be skateboards, surf fins, standup paddleboards, backpacks or even “no kill taxidermy” animal-head wall hangings.

In front of their workshop in South Lake Tahoe, the couple is putting the finishing touches on a school bus that they are planning to take on the road for the summer and turn it into a mobile popup showroom from which to sell their handmade beanies, clothing and messenger bags. Their guard dog Myles acts as trusty supervisor as the couple prepares for the summer-long trip to visit friends and family in Colorado, Illinois, Tennessee and the Pacific Northwest.

Robison has been creating things most of his life, starting in high school building skate decks and hoodies for his friends. He never thought of turning his hobby into a business until he moved to Lake Tahoe and met Grate — they soon went into business together crocheting beanies, stitching bags and taking on custom orders for unique functional art. Grate also has her own business called Tuff Peach Craft Co. specializing in apparel, soy candles and home décor. However, when they got the shop on Eloise Avenue four years ago, they finally turned Onus and Tuff Peach into a legitimate business manufacturing and selling products.

“We call them boyfriend/girlfriend companies but they are kind of the same,” Robison says.

In their studio workshop, Grate points out a board made of an old cedar fence, its stringers made from an old skate deck. There are surf fins made of bamboo, avocado bags, lichen and epoxy. There’s a wood-burning stove made out of an old air compressor. Amongst hand-knitted beanies are mittens made out of old leather jackets and couches lined with Gore-Tex.

Adam Robison working on a handmade surfboard. | Courtesy Onus Art Projects

“I started pressing skateboards and realized how cool it was to ride something I made,” he says.

Along with the thrill of enjoying things that he personally creates, Robison also thought about how he could save money making things himself.

“When I moved to Tahoe, I wanted a standup paddleboard, but they were extremely expensive. So I just started failing forward until I got one right,” he says, pointing to his first SUP hanging from the ceiling.

“It just came from looking at something and thinking, ‘I could make that the way I want it,’” Grate says.

While the materials may not cost much, the repurposing process takes a lot of time and effort. For instance, in the surfboard made out of the cedar fence, Robison had to find the good wood in it and sand it down to make it work.

If you haven’t guessed already, a lot of what Onus produces is things that the couple personally likes. For instance, Robison wanted a special kind of backpack that could fit in an airplane overhead compartment but that also had enough pockets and was comfortable enough to be worn while hiking around all day. He couldn’t find anything on the market, so he made his own. Their products are well made, sustainable and have a story behind them — making every one of them a coveted item.

“I want these boards to be heirlooms; they are built to last forever. We put a lot of love into how strong these are,” Robison says, knocking his fist on a multifaceted SUP with a compass engrained in the nose of it. “We’re always making something new, it’s never ending.”

Dallas Grate working on a project wearing an Onus work apron. | Courtesy Onus Art Projects

Their business name comes from the idea that the couple is not limited in what they can make and every piece is made with love — Art Projects — while Onus refers to taking on a burden.

“For us, it’s taking on other people’s waste,” Robison says.

He explains that when he was younger he was skateboarding with his friends on a loading dock where a part of the concrete was chipped off. The owner came out and blamed the group for damaging the property, put the onus on them. Robison looked up the word and he feels that with his company he is taking on the responsibility for other people’s discarded waste, much like taking the blame for something he didn’t do.

Starting Onus was a way for the pair to be free and self-employed, so now the goal is to maintain what they’ve started.

“We meet cool people and make what we want. We like to do a lot of things ourselves and waste less,” Robison says.

“We try to be as self-sustainable as we can,” Grate adds. “We really care about what we do.” | onusartprojects.com