scrap art

At this year's craft show, artists see beauty and infinite possibilities in what once was forgotten

February 20, 2005|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

As artists Lisa and Scott Cylinder scour flea markets, antique shops and yard sales for old Mono-poly hotels, Bakelite dice and wood checkers, nostalgia for childhood games is only part of the allure.

Before the Cylinders fashion their finds into brooches and other art jewelry pieces, they slice, carve and sculpt them into something entirely new. In a piece called Darwinian, an altered domino and die form elements of a bright red geometric bird and the flower it rests on. In Stop Sign, another visual pun of a brooch, a circle of Monopoly hotels surrounds a tree-stump forest mired in macadam. From a distance, Stop Sign resembles a child's rendering of a flower; up close, it speaks to environmental devastation.

By transforming and melding vintage game pieces with precious metals and other materials, "We're trying to stir up thought about the way we live in our world and the way we relate to objects," Lisa Cylinder says. She and her husband will exhibit their work at the American Craft Council Show Friday through Sunday at the Baltimore Convention Center downtown.

The Cylinders, who call their business "Chickenscratch," find inspiration in the well-worn trinkets of childhood. Among the craft show's 650 participants, numerous others also work with found objects ranging from discarded crabmeat tins to ephemera such as sugar substitute packets, lottery tickets and grocery coupons.

Recycling castoffs into new creations, both functional and decorative, is a long tradition in American fine art, craft, folk art and design, says Lloyd Herman, the founding director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. Since Colonial times, thrifty Americans have made pieced quilts, rugs and furniture from discarded materials, says Herman, who now lives in Seattle.

In the realm of fine art, "We need think only of the uses that Louise Nevelson made of ten pins, wood shoe forms, and other familiar wood shapes in her wall assemblages," Herman writes in an essay for Trashformations East, an exhibition of art made from refuse currently at the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Mass. "Or the witty toys made from coffee can tins for which Alexander Calder was revered."

Folk artists such as the late Howard Finster, whose monumental Paradise Gardens is built from found objects, and the late Paul Darmafall, the "Baltimore Glassman" who used shards of glass to create glittery angels, trees, flags, birds and historical figures, instinctively gravitated to the infinite possibilities of detritus.

Art reclamation

Philadelphia's "Dumpster divers" are a group of artists who reinvent stuff that was considered junk by less resourceful consumers. "Trash is simply a failure of imagination," Neil Benson, a Dumpster school member who creates jewelry from typewriter keys, has said.

Like their dumpster-diving peers, many contemporary craft artists working with found objects do so "partly as an environmental response -- people are more conscious of trying to save things and do something with them," Herman says. Refuse is also cheap, if not free, so artists can afford to experiment, Herman says.

An artist may be drawn to a found object because of its shape and heft. Another may be lured by the patterns and colors of commercial packaging, traffic signs, license plates and other means of public communication.

There are artists who work with objects with sentimental value, Herman says. "Their work may be nostalgic or ironic or poetic; it depends on their [finding] something that already has a history and an association that they can mine in a new way." Other artists may employ a found object in a way that obliterates its original purpose, says Herman, who curated an earlier version of Trashformations: Recycled Materials in American Art and Design that toured the United States in the 1990s.

The best found-object art departs from the "more funky assemblages which a lot of people do," Herman says. "What you're seeing now in a lot of found-object art is thoughtfulness and refinement and quality construction."

It was an industrial-size tin of Bazzini nuts stamped with the image of a happy elephant with a giant peanut that first alerted Kim Kulow-Jones to the potential of found objects. A furniture maker who works with her husband, Douglas Jones, in Burlington, Vt., Kulow-Jones stashed the tin away for a year and let its possibilities percolate. "I knew something would come to me," she says. About a year later, she turned four legs and a lid on a lathe, attached them to the tin, and there stood her first food canister. "That was the beginning of it," Kulow-Jones says.

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