Handmade: Artist embellishes nature’s artwork

Jocelynn Brown
The Detroit News

Most people see a pine cone as nothing more than a woody gift from Mother Nature, comprised of scales in the shape of a cone and produced in various forms by different species of pine trees. But for someone like “found object artist” Levi Johnson, who has an eye for repurposing, a pine cone is “an unfinished piece of artwork” waiting to be embellished.

Johnson holds up a group of finished pins. “All I'm doing is embellishing nature,” he says.

Johnson’s interest in pine cones stems from their uniquely geometric shape, and he compares them to other interesting forms of nature. “The structure in most of nature is that pattern repeated. If you look at a rose, the way the petals are arranged, they’re kind of positioned in an off-set circle. You (also) see that pattern in seashells. It’s just amazing when you look at a pine cone, the way the cone is structured,” explained the Detroit resident, who’s named his pine cone art “Fibonacci,” after the Italian mathematician who discovered the recurrence of the numbering system found in nature.

Johnson, 61, has spent nearly the past three years turning pine cones into wearable art to be worn as boutonnieres. He cuts them horizontally, down to about a half-inch from the base, and then uses a rotary tool to flatten the end that will become the back, where he later attaches a pin back with a “high-strength adhesive,” as the finishing touch. The end that becomes the top/front of the pin is determined by the look he’s going after at the time. For an open-petal affect, he uses the cut end, but for a blossoming cluster, he uses the bottom of the cone.

After securing the pine cone in a vice, Johnson cuts off the bottom half to make it flat.

For the finishing – he said, “At first, I was just putting a glaze on them, but then I started painting (some of) them, and in painting them, I discovered, instead of just mimicking the way a flower is, I started splattering them with speckles of paint.” And, for more variety, he applies gold leaf to some. Once the cones have dried, he then adds a bit of “glamour” with tiny objects, like rhinestones, Swarovski crystals, praying hands, etc.

Johnson sells his little conversation pieces, priced around $20 each, by word-of-mouth, and to his pastor and fellow members at New Bethel Baptist Church.

His customer, he says, is “the person who might have an inner desire to seek some compliments, or maybe just make a standout statement, or need to accent something they’re wearing, and that one accessory could make it pop.” He believes accessories are important, and his boutonniere pins are just another way to help men kick it up a notch with a bit of personal style. “Guys don’t have a lot they can do to add to their attire,” he said.

Robert Smith Jr., pastor of New Bethel Baptist for the past 35 years, has purchased 22 of Johnson’s pins, and says he wears one every day. “It gives my conservative clothing a little lift, and I’m someone who likes attention, and it gets me a lot of attention. It’s unique, and boutonnieres are back in fashion,” he said. “I have the (natural colored) pine cone boutonnieres. I also have bright red and yellow ones. I dress in dark colors all the time, and I wear a dress coat and pants everyday.”

Women are also among Johnson’s customers and many have requested he start designing some of his pins as necklaces and earrings.

Johnson’s clever idea for turning pine cones into wearable Fibonacci pieces was “born out of being out of work.” He said, “I started looking at ways I could generate income from within.” Around the same time, he created “Mr. Levi’s My T Fine Soul Sauce,” a barbecue sauce sold in four local supermarkets and one restaurant.

His pins, which he says can also be used to embellish hats and purses, are currently sold under the same name as his sauce, and they, too, are “My T Fine!”

Detroit News Columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150, or

Contact Levi Johnson at