Photo by Lauchlin Fields
Elayne Goodman’s fabric books.
The many things an artist can create from a castoff
Christmas is a-coming—again. I’m no Ebenezerine Scroogella, but I used to see the annual search for unusual yet suitable gifts as daunting, frustrating, and expensive yet could never bring myself to be a “regifter,” a term introduced to the Christmas vernacular by a Seinfeld segment. Although I understand how desperate people can convince themselves that kith or kin would truly love the ten-pound Bourbon-soaked fruitcake sent by Great Aunt Myrtle, I prefer the option of the ultimate recycling, folk art made from “found objects,” known to the uninitiated as junk. I’m not a folk artist, but working at the Attic Gallery in Vicksburg I’ve met many creative folk whose art is both a delight and an inspiration for the rest of us who may want to emulate them. Be forewarned, however: the search for found objects and their transformation can become an incurable sickness that consumes the artists’ time, imaginations, and lives.
Julia Allen, a.k.a. “Poor Julia,” is a prime example of a woman bitten by the found object bug, which causes an itch to search for possible art in unlikely places. Once a “normal” nurse, home maker and mother, when bitten by the found object bug she had an irresistible desire to frequent garage sales and flea markets, dig in trashcans and gather Nature’s remnants, using her “stuff” for yard art or squirreling it away as her family whispered, “bag lady.” After her children left a decidedly not empty nest, Julia contemplated her junk, thinking, “If I could just weld….”
So after taking a welding class, she scoured scrap metal yards, seeing in the battered metal around her possible flora, fauna, and quirky people with wild, wiry hair. Waving her blowtorch wand, Julia turns broken and rusted appliances, tools, auto parts, and hunks of metal from who-knows-what into endearing dogs, cats, birds and bugs. Benevolent angels and bemused people smile from beneath hubcap hats, bicycle chain coifs and scrap metal curls, many offering the forgetful an unforgettable place to hang elusive keys. Poor Julia, she’s too far gone to cure.
Other folk artists were born with a rusty spoon in their mouths. Elayne Goodman, raised on a poverty-pinched farm in the Mississippi Delta, learned how to “make do” early in life. In lieu of bought toys, her mother gave her buttons, scraps of fabric, needles, thread, even razor blades, and she sewed from the time she was six. Raised on the “waste not want not” creed, she learned to entertain herself with honest, useful items, honing an instinct to see beneath the surface and imagine possibilities—which taught her to save rather than discard; consequently, she’s never without art supplies, which she keeps in neatly labeled shoe boxes. Her career as a folk artist began furtively out of the sight of her husband, Pete, who to this day can’t understand what drives her to create something from nothing or what drives buyers to swoop up her creations, but buy and leave grinning they do. Anything from discarded furniture, cigar boxes, wooden cheese boxes, old bottles, photos, globes, metal trays, tableware (the list goes on)—is fair game for her to paint and decorate. She frequently creates tongue-in-cheek Elvis items with old images of the King. As her fame spread, she was commissioned by Sanderson Plumbing Products to make an Elvis memorial toilet seat honoring the King’s place of death, his final resting place, so to speak. But what she still loves best and does from the heart is sewing. Her nostalgic handmade fabric books are like photo albums that are embroidered, lavished with old lace, accentuated with old black and white photos sewn in, and decorated with buttons, beads, memories, humor and pure creativity.
Then there are the artists with artistic legacy. Lesley Silver, whose mother was a painter and printmaker, sees art with a different perspective from her mother’s. She creates her “Spirits of the Woods” from interestingly shaped pieces of wood that seem either spiritual or kin to the scary trees in The Wizard of Oz. In fact, Lesley is really an immigrant from Oz—the Good Witch who makes the insignificant significant by turning Altoid boxes into tiny shrines, Barbie dolls into feminist statements, and blocks of wood with hardware features into blockheads and quizzical little people.
Similarly, Anne Campbell, a Wilkinson County girl, has made a name for herself in the folk art realm with an ability to envision a marriage of unlikely partners. Possibly inspired by a father who loved making funky chairs from unlikely sources like screen doors and driftwood, Anne’s amused and amusing visionary skill has landed her a place in the Mississippi Artists’ Guild and a place in the hearts of patrons who show off their Campbell collections, including “rollerdogs” made of rolling pins or croquet mallet heads, old skates from pre-rollerblade days, wooden shoe forms from bygone children’s shoe departments, and springy wire coils that wag. Anne also brakes for junk at flea markets and yard sales and keeps her eye peeled for items of interest tossed onto roadsides, that become objects d’art de folk once in Anne’s capable hands.
And the Attic features still more folk artistry. Lee H. Abraham twists and turns wire into cats, dogs, fish, people (including a sax player). And Christmas trees with bead ornaments. And wooden sculptures with distinct personalities.
Amber Koestler makes guitar pick earrings, Goldie Garcia makes bottle cap earrings and pins, McArthur Chisolm makes bottle cap crosses and birdhouses, Steve Smith recycles wine bottles into jewelry and wind chimes, and Earl Simmons makes wooden trucks with spray paint can tops for tires, wooden jukeboxes, and metal chickens. The list goes on forever, and the Christmas party never ends...
Art is everywhere and anything we can imagine. We can’t all weld metal, we can’t all imagine hybrids of diverse parts, but we can try to make the most of our imaginations. For instance, take a look at overgrown okra pods, too tough to eat. Squint. Imagine them sealed, covered with glitter and hanging on the Christmas tree. Wow. How about glittery string beans as icicles and small glittery gourds as balls? Get the picture? Now isn’t that more fun than going to a mall?
Attic Gallery 1101 South Washington Street Vicksburg, Ms. (601) 638-9221 atticgallery.blogspot.com