A business created by four formerly homeless men is saving not only the tradition of so-called 'tramp art' but, more to the point, the men themselves

Late last year I discovered a high-school-graduation portrait of my father and went in search of a frame for it in New York City. At a store called Leo Design, located around the corner from my home in Greenwich Village, I found just the thing. It was a frame made of thin strips of wood, each layer slightly narrower than the one below it, so that, if you were to cut a cross section of one side, it would look like the outline of a ziggurat. The wood was indented with numerous little notches and burnished to a deep caramel color.

The frame was immediately recognizable as a piece of tramp art, a distinctive form of woodworking usually associated with the hoboes who rode the rails during the Great Depression. I had seen examples of it--mostly small items, such as boxes and mirrors, but also large pieces like chests and bureaus -- in antiques shops. At Leo Design, vintage wares are sold alongside new goods. What puzzled me was that, at $175, the frame I wanted bore the price of an antique, and yet the store displayed several examples of it.

"Are these new?" I asked the salesman.

He pointed to the frame's tag. Examining it, I read: "The Hermitage Artists are a working collaborative of previously homeless men carrying on the spirit of the 'tramp' by making objects of art out of discarded materials. ... Their workshop is an abandoned storefront, ... their materials are found in the back streets and alleys of their town."

What an idea! A group of formerly "homeless men" (today's term for "tramps") had revived an old vernacular art form. And they were practicing it in the traditional way. They were living communally, yet succeeding as businessmen.

I bought the frame.

A few months later I travel by train 160 miles north to Troy, N.Y., a down-at-the-heels 19th-century factory town on the Hudson River where the four Hermitage Artists live and work. When I arrive at the station in Albany, Andy Stutter, one of the artists, picks me up in a yellow 1984 Cadillac.

"I wish I could have driven the '51 Chevy," Stutter says. He isn't driving that car, it turns out, because he's waiting for the vehicle's antique-car insurance to come through. "The '51 Chevy -- it's unique compared to other cars," he continues. "The '57 Chevys are a dime a dozen. I want something other people don't have." A bearlike man with a muffled voice, Stutter is wearing a paint-spattered gray T-shirt and jeans.

The antique cars are my tip-off that these practitioners of tramp art are no longer tramps. My next surprise comes when we stop on the way to Troy to pick up a can of orange shellac at a store called Passonno Paints. Hadn't I read on the tag attached to my picture frame that the Hermitage Artists scavenge their supplies from alleys? "If people paint their houses and use white paint, and there's some left over, we might use it," Stutter says. "But with the business getting as successful as it has been, we have to go to suppliers. Sometimes you just don't have time to run through the alleys."

Although success has required the business to develop new sources of supplies, the Hermitage Artists still lift many of their raw materials from the garbage heap. Shelves in their workshop are stacked with sheets of salvaged wood. Paul Cunningham, one of the Hermitage four, makes the rounds of the local supermarkets to collect produce crates, which the group then disassembles and stores. "We love Argentine wood," says Michael Lavery, the founder and dominant personality of the group. He and his partners harvest this attractively grained lumber from winter-grape crates.

By recycling crates, the Hermitage Artists remain true to the spirit of their tramp-art predecessors, who relied primarily on discarded cigar boxes and packing crates for material. At the same time, the Hermitage's practice of salvaging goods from supermarkets makes good business sense for both parties involved in the transaction. If not for Cunningham's pickup service, the supermarkets would have to squash the crates in a compactor and send them on to a landfill. "We help them with their solid-waste management," Lavery says. "We measure the weight of what we take from each store, and we know the store managers. At the end of the year we can tell them how much we've taken, so they know how much they've saved."

What's more important, through their business the Hermitage Artists have salvaged their own lives. In 1989, when Lavery moved into a ramshackle building in a seedy section of Troy -- a building that the artists still occupy -- it was derelict, and so was he. It had once been a general store, but when Lavery moved in, the only running water was cold, and there was no electricity until he poked an illegal lead through the wall. Its one big room contained oil drums, rolled-up carpet, and a couple of old sinks. "I was sponge bathing in the sink," he recounts. "Very humbling."