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Anna Oakes photo
Hundreds of folks, from babies to senior citizens, wearing costumes and carrying flags and puppets made from trash and other reused materials, march in the community-created Liberty Parade in Todd, N.C., in July 2010.
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“Window on the World” by Steebo Design. “The shapes and forms that I find inspire me. Often times the shapes and forms dictate the result in the end,” said artist Stefan Bonitz.
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A Tabasco Sauce bottle forms the head and abdomen of this winged insect fashioned by junk artist John D. Richards of Burnsville, N.C.
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Limitless art supplies
Artist John D. Richards of Burnsville, N.C. says of his inexhaustible supply of inspiration: “I live in America. It’s the greatest trash country there is.”
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Kathe Hall of Jasper, Ga., uses broken china, glass, and other found objects in her frames and décor for the home.
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Anna Oakes photo
You found my art!
Boone artist Dan Kaple works on a piece for his You Found My Art project from his Depot Street studio.
Bones, lint, Styrofoam, banana skins, the squishes and squashes found on the street: nothing is so humble that it cannot be made into art,” the Hungarian-born artist Sari Dienes once proclaimed, as quoted in her 1992 obituary in The New York Times.
But prior to the twentieth century (and even throughout), the artistic elite indubitably would have begged to differ. Art was something that was planned and composed, something to be created only by the talented and the trained using the traditional media of oils, watercolors, metals, and the like.
It was the European Dada movement—born out of frustration with World War I and the modern society that produced it—that began to incorporate the everyday object in works of art, most famously with Marcel Duchamp’s series of “Readymades,” including “Fountain,” a urinal turned on its side. “Duchamp…removes the artist’s hand from the process and gives himself over wholly to the randomness of chance,” writes art history professor and author Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette.
Today, the found object—whether purchased at a thrift store, discovered in a dumpster or received as a gift—appeals to artists for a whole host of reasons.
“Cost is a factor. Free materials!” explained Asheville Area Arts Council Executive Director Kitty Love. “Crushed metal, old wood, etc. communicate a history, the past, which is evocative, has presence, a sense of a story, and meaning. Making something ordinary into something extraordinary is a gratifying process, like alchemy. Turning trash into gold. When you can do it, it proves that people are missing things. It triggers a shift in perspective. Or seeing the beauty in something perceived as worthless, and showing others so that they can see it.”
And as more people work to practice sustainable ways of living, it makes sense for artists, too.
“The values of a generation brought up under the shadow of the destruction of the earth by an over-consuming culture may have shifted, causing artists to engage in reuse and preservation, and a return to the values that guide a frugal homesteading approach valued by our forebears, who had less to work with and valued what they had. It’s a way of supporting a move toward a greener way of life.”
Stefan Bonitz • Asheville, N.C.
A run to the industrial scrap yard is akin to a trip to the art supply store for Asheville artist Stefan Bonitz of Steebo Design, and forget the paintbrush—Stefan’s strokes are made with a crane and a skid-steer.
Born in Long Island, N.Y., Stefan moved to Greenville, S.C., and then to Asheville, N.C., at age five. Under the tutelage of Howard Munson of the San Francisco Art Institute, Stefan rekindled his childhood interest in creative projects. He became co-creator of an Asheville retail outlet showcasing more than two hundred artists and his own works, which from 1989 to 1995 included fabric, leather, airbrushing, acrylic painting, graphic design and mixed media assemblages.
Stefan launched Steebo Design in 1995, and metal became his primary focus. His media comes almost exclusively from recycled found objects, but the appeal of his pieces is diverse, ranging from functional works such as lighting and furniture, to folk art, to outdoor sculptures of large scale and high design. Stefan said he takes pleasure in diverting heavy-gauge metals from the waste stream.
“I’m intervening in the whole process of the materials being transported to a foundry,” said Stefan. “I’m reclaiming the shapes and forms and well as the materials.”
Perhaps most distinctive among the Steebo body of work are Stefan’s fanciful metal humanoids and “critters,” with their signature protruding spheres for eyes and mouths agape in surprise or delight. A pair of these metallic beings—one slim, one portly, and both donning wide-brimmed hats—can be spotted picking a tune on the banjo and washtub bass in a work called “Old Time Music” erected in Waynesville, N.C., as part of the town’s public art program.
Other works in his collection are funky mailboxes, abstract sculptures, dramatic signs, sleek bicycle racks, old, geometric fences and railings, and striking pieces of décor and functional whimsy for the wall, coffee table or kitchen. Most of Stefan’s outdoor creations are caked in the deep reds and browns or burnt oranges of a rust patina created by the controlled oxidation of iron and steel; works for the indoors are generally brushed steel.
Stefan travels around the Southeast in search of material, much of which isn’t produced locally. Hauling a 24-foot trailer, he returns with a load of purchased or collected metals for immediate use or storage at his West Asheville studio. Stefan is a trained welder and positions pieces into place using a crane and a Bobcat. And although he may have a concept for a figure or character prior to heading to the scrap yard, the pieces he finds could take him in a different direction.
“The shapes and forms that I find inspire me,” he said. “Often times the shapes and forms dictate the result in the end.”
In 2011, Stefan was voted the No. 1 metalworker in Mountain Xpress’ Best of WNC awards.
Robyn Raines: Cedar Bluff, Va.
Mixed media artist Robyn Raines, originally from Cedar Bluff, Va., has experience in textiles, paper arts and bookmaking. Her work combines the familiarity of found objects with newer pieces made by hand. Found objects incorporated in her works include books, paper, spools of wire, steel, fabric, flash cubes, ballpoint pen springs and other finds.
Recent work includes pieces examining the ideas of “women’s work,” with sewn garments and embroidery, as well as elements from vintage women’s magazines, books, uniforms, and other media. Her compositions capture and remember the small—but significant—details of daily life.
Raines, who studied at the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina, currently is a member of the staff of the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va.
John D. Richards • Burnsville, N.C.
John D. Richards of Burnsville, N.C., is a purveyor of art and self-deprecating humor.
“In 1963 he quit his job, moved to NYC, took various courses at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and began his freelance art career. He has been creatively unemployed ever since. The unfortunate result of that misguided compulsion fills the following pages,” reads a short bio on his webpage.
An announcement touting one of his workshops in June called John a “junk artist extraordinaire” and the “pied piper of recycled art.”
“When I was a kid in Wisconsin, the only material available was mud and sticks in the back yard,” John said. Hence the name of his home and studios shared with wife and potter Claudia Dunaway: Yummy Mud Puddle. He says he’s never short on supplies.
“I live in America. It’s the greatest trash country there is,” he deadpans. Now that all of his friends know what he does, they save things for him—buttons, pull tabs, spark plugs, cat food can lids, beer caps. There’s a friend who repairs chip boards for washing machines, so John gets the unusable chip boards.
“Mostly little things. The objects I make are for sale, and people don’t buy large things, especially in a downturn. I probably have two lifetime supplies already, but I still want more because that’s my addiction.” His creations are primarily decorative: mermaids, angels, and all sorts of animals, with birds and fish being the best sellers, he says. Although he’s been making art from discarded junk for decades, John acknowledges the increased interest in found object art.
“The world has finally caught up to me,” said John, feigning a sigh. “We have more and more trash. The Pop artists were using trash. Joseph Cornell made the museums and 50 years later it’s in the gift shops. It takes a long time to go to the populace.”
John’s works can be found throughout Western North Carolina, from Blowing Rock to Bryson City, as well as locations in Virginia, Tennessee, South Carolina and Florida.
Elkland Art Center • Todd, N.C.
Based in the tiny community of Todd, N.C., where time seems to move as slowly as the New River flows, the Elkland Art Center is devoted to building community through art, and most of that art is created from reused or recycled materials.
Founded in 1997 in the old Elkland School, the center produces community parades; puppet shows for schools, festivals, and libraries; workshops; and documentary videos on matters important to communities. In 2000 and 2001, the Elkland Art Center held several parades that featured giant puppets and costumed marchers depicting the Todd community’s relationship with the New River and its ecosystem. Based on their success, the Liberty Parade became an annual event in Todd—and it’s hands down one of the most unusual Fourth of July parades ever seen. No pageant queens, classic cars or dignitaries here. Just ordinary folks—hundreds of them, from anywhere and everywhere—marching down the narrow, winding Railroad Grade Road in Todd, dressed in colorful, handmade costumes and oversized masks, walking dogs, beating drums and pushing babies in strollers, some carrying larger-than-life puppets along the way. There’s the Trash Dragon—much like the ones in Chinese New Year celebrations—constructed from landfill-bound materials such as Styrofoam trays and plastic yogurt containers. Two years ago was the debut of the Earth Puppet, a giant spectacle celebrating land-based creatures. This year the theme was “Viva la LibAIRTodd,” with a focus on the element of air highlighted by new banners, pinwheels and windsocks.
Each June, several public workshops are held so that community members can create new puppets and costumes for use in the Liberty Parade.
“Most of our puppets are recycled in some way,” said Cindy Ball, an Elkland staff member. “We often find art that we have made in the past and give it new life. We also find materials everywhere. People litter and we make it into art. People donate a lot of material that they would otherwise throw away.”
Elkland’s other programs, offered to schools and communities throughout the region, include the Trash’n Fashion Show, a partnership with Appalachian State University students who showcase their designs—made from trash—on the runway. “Jason’s Dream” is a show about a young boy’s adventure into the depths of the landfill to discover that trash is “stuck! stuck! stuck!” and the only way to free the nice trash he meets is to not put it there in the first place. How? Recycle! Reduce! Reuse! Jason comes to realize that he and audiences everywhere can be a vital part of the solution by remembering to recycle, reduce and reuse.
“At Elkland, we like to show beauty in unusual places. And there is so much trash! It seems like we have to do something with our waste, [and] we might as well make art,” said Cindy.
Learn more about Elkand and its community programs at elklandartcenter.org.
Kathe Hall • Jasper, Ga.
Kathe Hall is no pack rat but she confesses to being a “plate hoarder.” She collects fine china and decorative plates, and inevitably, plates are broken. And when she just couldn’t bring herself to sweep the beautiful shattered remains of her collectibles into the trashcan, a new hobby was born.
“I thought, ‘I’ve got to be able to do something with these broken plates,’” said Kathe. She loves to decorate and has a knack for color, especially hues that are bright, bold and funky. “I would see blues and think I could do a beautiful blue and white mirror from this,” she said. So for the past 17 years, Kathe has taught herself to make colorful mosaic works using broken pieces of china, glass, mirrors, pottery and other found objects.
“I probably have over 300 dishes in my studio at any one given time,” remarked Kathe, along with bins and shelves of all kinds of other bits and pieces accumulated from her own mishaps, friends and discount stores: drawer hardware, old game pieces, bottle tops, bottle caps, mannequins, porcelain figurines, and window panes. Arranged in patterns, the colorful elements form picture frames, chalkboards, planters, birdbaths, decorative busts, lamps, wall hangings and other home décor. Kathe even used a teapot as part of a birdfeeder, filling the pot with yarn, leaves and other supplies for birds to use in building their nests.
“Anything to give them a repurposed life,” she noted. “When it hits me, I get going on it.”
Kathe works from her home studio but also owns a gallery and art studio called Van Gogh’s Hideaway in Jasper, Ga.
You Found My Art!
What makes a better conversation starter: art you bought at a gallery, or art you found in a tree?
Boone artist Dan Kaple’s side project, which he’s reviving this year after a brief hiatus, is called You Found My Art. Dan, along with any friends who want to participate, creates small, original works of art and then hides them in public places. The first persons who happen to notice them, then, are free to keep them or hide them again.
“I like the whole chance discovery aspect of it—people can find it without even knowing they were looking for it,” Dan said. On the back of each artwork, Dan includes his email address and URL for the You Found My Art blog, where he documents the project. Almost all of the pieces have been found, he said, and often, the finders do get in touch. A small painting placed on a tree branch near the Appalachian State University campus found its way into the hands of a Brit, who took the piece across the pond to London. Other works have been hidden in alleys, windows, a metal storm drain, underneath a bridge, in parks, and on hiking trails.
Though the project could be considered a form of guerrilla art, political and social commentary isn’t the objective—it’s non-confrontational, Dan explains.
“It’s a way to completely randomly reach out to people,” he said. “Because this world can be lonely, and sometimes it makes me feel better to think that, even if I don’t know who they are, I am somehow reaching out and maybe making the world a little less lonely for someone else.”
And, Dan adds, it’s a freeing process. There’s no burden of storing the art or selling it, or placing a dollar amount on its value: “Once I put it out there, it’s not my problem anymore.”
Dan invites other artists to participate in You Found My Art. Create an original piece of art, hide it, take a photo and send it to Dan so he can post it on the blog. “I don’t own this idea,” he emphasized.
Check out youfoundmyart.blogspot.com.
While objects and materials for art-making can easily be obtained without sneaking around, many nonetheless enjoy dumpster diving as part of the thrill of the process. SML does not endorse the practice, but if you dare to dive, here are some words of advice from sources on the internet:
- Know the local laws. In some jurisdictions, dumpster divers can be charged with theft or trespassing if caught.
- Dress for success. Long sleeves, pants, gloves, and closed-toed shoes are a must.
- Take an accomplice. In case you fall in.
- Know common move-in and move-out dates. In college towns, keep an eye out for furniture and appliances in late April and early May.
- Take only what you plan to use.
- Clean up after yourself. If you scatter trash around, put it back in the dumpster when you’re done.