Of all the lists one could find oneself on —the short list, the sh*t list, the FBI Most Wanted list—none are quite so dangerous and downright unnerving as Craig’s List. But that’s where Tim Steller found himself late one balmy August night five years ago, when the bartending was slow but his mind still racing, thinking back to his days in New York City. He was an artist then, a calligrapher, a tattooist, a graffiti artist. Here in Sarasota he was restaurant ronin—a wandering server without a master, living from gig to gig. He turned to Craig’s List. He clicked the Free section. He found an old wooden pallet.

Photos by Wyatt Kostygan.


Steller stared at that pallet. And then he stared some more. This went on for three days and three nights, until the stone rolled back from the tomb of his soul and what rose was revelation. The man had whittled all his life—self-taught, sure, but competent—and now saw an opportunity to reignite the embers of that artistic fire. And he had his first child, a son, and wanted to make something for him. Something that would hang over the child’s bed, a protective presence but still undeniably cool. Pulling out his old Dremel tool, Steller carved a great shark out of the pallet, a nod to his own fascination with the ocean world, taking his time to get all the little details and fins and cuts. Then he put the shark to the side, his focus drawn instead by the gaping maw of negative space where the shark once was. And he had an epiphany: “How can I make this a nightlight?” Five years later, the shark-shaped nightlight still hangs above his son’s bed, and Steller is known for these lightbox constructions—carven aquatic scenes backlit by tropical colors and framed in reclaimed wood—that he sells at farmers markets from Sarasota to St. Pete, as well as to area establishments like Marina Jack’s. And the commissions keep coming in, leading Steller to devote more and more to his rather time-consuming process. “Compared to most artists,” he says, “I’m making my own canvas.” He’s not lying. The ultimate DIY project, an open garage and empty driveway serve as Steller’s studio, where he begins by deconstructing the many pallets and bits of discarded wood collected and sunbaked against the fence. Grouping them by size, texture and color, he creates his planked canvas and constructs a backing for it that not only houses the battery, but ensures the perfect amount of “glow space” for the LED lights to be installed. Sketching the scene onto the boards, Steller deconstructs the whole thing in order to cut each plank individually. Then comes the most time-intensive and mind-numbing part of the whole affair—sanding that rough palette wood down to glassy smoothness. Some paint and stain complete the whole affair, or used to. These days, Steller likes to introduce a bit of amateur metallurgy to the operation as well, either through blowtorched copper accents or a copper paint that he hits with some patina accelerant for an even more rustic look. The final result is something weathered and artifactual that looks as discovered as it is built, something earthy to ground its owner while the LEDs glow like bioluminescence. And by its light, the streetside detritus of a construction-filled town never looks like trash.“Not to me,” Steller says. “That’s 55 inches of solid pine that I can transform into a huge aquatic scene.”