Turning Trash into Treasure
By Robin Jay
‘Yes, What?’ was the name of the 1920 painting (below) that art connoisseurs fervently vied for in a June bidding war that reached $23.8 million at Christie’s auction house in London. ‘Yes, What?’ was also my personal reaction when I read in The Wall Street Journal that this painting not only far outpriced works by great masters like Matisse and Miro, but also – remarkably – was made of debris and cardboard found on the streets of Berlin by German artist Kurt Schwitters. Intrigued to find out why a collage of trash would fetch such a tidy sum, I immediately dug into online research. I aimed to learn just who was this man Schwitters and why was his work so valuable.
Schwitters was born in 1887 in Hanover, Germany. He studied art at Dresden Academy and launched his career as a post-impressionist painter, first exhibiting his work in 1911. As World War I advanced, Schwitter’s work grew darker, taking on the feel of expressionism. In 1917, the artist was drafted into the military as a technical draftsman. “In the war [at the machine factory at Wülfen] I discovered my love for the wheel and recognized that machines are abstractions of the human spirit,” Schwitters wrote.
A year later, at the end of the war, the artist’s work changed significantly as a result of the military, political and economic collapse.
“In the war, things were in terrible turmoil. What I had learned at the academy was of no use to me. Everything had broken down and new things had to be made out of the fragments; and this is Merz [the term coined for collages made out of found objects]. It was like a revolution within me,” he said.
The Search for Modern-Day Merz
Fascinated by Schwitters’ story, I decided to see what modern-day artists I could find around the world who have the talent of making fine art out of discards and found objects. The works I found and the artists I met are utterly amazing. Here are a few of my favorites…
Welding Sculptor John Lopez
“I grew up on a ranch in the northwestern part of South Dakota,” John Lopez said. “The landscape and the people here inspire me to do what I do. I love the animals and the spirit they seem to embody. You can see it in their eyes – that spirit that does not want to be tamed. I try to capture that in the eye of my sculptures. “I try to sculpt animals that are from this area or relevant to us here on the plains. I collect pieces from surrounding ranches. I don’t know what I will use the pieces for until I get into creating the sculpture. I first sculpt a maquette of the piece in clay to get the concept, pose and proportions figured out. Then I use that to take measurements from and transfer the measurements over to the scrap iron sculpture. I love the discoveries of new textures and new shapes that are revealed to me as I start to grab pieces and weld them on. I let my mind’s eye tell me what looks good and then just go with the flow. I like the feeling of, ‘Wow. I didn’t expect that to happen, but I like it.’
“I get the inspiration first, then start grabbing things out of my collection of stuff and try to make what I have work. I try not to let one piece dictate what I should do because I usually cover it up or it gets lost in the mix of all the other things. The big picture and energy of the animal is more important than one piece.”
To see more pieces by John Lopez, go to www.johnlopezstudio.com.
Anamorphis Artist Bernard Pras
A virtuoso in juxtaposing eclectic objects to create a reconstituted image, French artist Bernard Pras is a painter who traded in his brushes to create masterpieces by arranging found items. It’s a talent he says sprouted from a childhood of helping his grandmother organize products at her grocery story.
“I use objects like touches of paint,” Pras told South Florida Opulence. “My first piece was a square on the floor in which I put objects of a specific color on backgrounds of the same color – and that led to my style today. I created ‘Einstein’ as a cultural manifestation. It’s made of objects I received from neighbors and collected from sidewalk trash bins.”
Bernard Pras artwork is available at www.artsper.com.
Artist in Found Materials Jane Perkins
“Some people would describe me as a ‘re-maker,’ others as a collage artist. A word that comes up frequently is ‘quirky.’ I make pictures without paint, using small objects placed close together to provide the colour and form an image. I make portraits of famous people in this way, and also re-create famous paintings, giving them a contemporary twist.
“I took a degree in textiles as a student and became interested in using recycled materials. For my final degree show, I made hand-stitched brooches from old jewelry, plastic toys, coins, shells and other found objects. While making these, I collected lots of materials, which were too big for brooches and, for a long while, wondered what to do with them. The idea of making them into a portrait just came into my head one day. The first large portrait was of Queen Elizabeth. Half way through the portrait in 2008, I had a sort of ‘Eureka Moment’ when I knew it was going to work and that this could become my direction!
“I choose works which are very well known, so that the viewer gets ‘the joke’ of seeing something very familiar having been made in a different and unexpected way. Favourites with the public are Sunflowers, after van Gogh; Girl with a Pearl Earring, after Vermeer; Mona Lisa after da Vinci and Marilyn, after Warhol. I use any materials of the right size, shape and colour. No colour is added – everything is used exactly ‘as found’. My work is great fun to make and I still enjoy producing each and every piece. I love sifting through bags of unwanted goods or broken jewelry, looking for interesting items of exactly the right colour. Every shade of every colour is there in unwanted plastic!
“I like art with humour or an element of the unexpected. I want my work to be fun and accessible – there is no deep or hidden meaning. My aim is to make people smile. I love exhibiting and watching people’s reactions to my work.”
To see more collage portraits by Jane Perkins, visit www.devonartistnetwork.co.uk.
Land Artist Dietmar Voorwold
“The Scottish coastline and landscape is an amazing canvas for my work,” said nature artist Dietmar Voorwold. “The pebbles, the shape and colors of the rocks, the leaking ripples and the powerful waves – places of immense creative potential. I can spend a whole lifetime working here. Each day is different. Nature is very moody, incalculable and surprising.
“My art is a matter of finding the balance. The perfect place, the perfect material, the perfect shape. The right moment. It might happen that sculptures break down, the incoming tide comes too early, the light changes too fast, a dog steps over my mosaics. The right timing in combination with patience and flexibility is a valuable assumption for my work.
“Photography is another important part of my art. I freeze a little moment. The actual installation will be gone within a few days or minutes, depending on the rhythms of nature.
“My installations blend seamlessly into the landscape and often it looks as if they had been there forever. They are designs in the context of large designs, the pristine nature, which surprises us in its beauty, variety and unpredictability.”
To see more of Dietmar’s amazing landart, go to www.creations-in-nature.com.
Environmental Plastic Artists Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang
“Richard and I have been working artists for close to 40 years, each with a dedicated studio practice. In 1999, we had our first date on Kehoe Beach, where we discovered that each of us had been collecting plastic for use as an art material for three years before that fateful date! We were married in 2004,” Judith said.
“We turned our artist eyes to the plastic pollution we had been finding on the beach. We had long been advocates for environmental issues, so we chose to make work that would be both beautiful and meaningful. With lively banter and good humor, we love to tell our love story about what we discovered on our first date (each other) and the romantic adventure that ensued.
“Although the news about plastic pollution is dire, we want to bring the excitement of scouting for treasures and the pleasure of the creative life to an otherwise difficult topic. We chose ‘One Beach’ and just 1000 yards of that beach to make a graspable measure. We have rambled that stretch of beach hundreds of times and have collected thousands of pounds of plastic. We keep count of certain items like (to date) the 268 little red paddles from cheese and cracker snack kits, like 134 (to date) green stirrers sticks from Starbucks coffee, like (to date) the 643 ‘disposable’ lighters.”
Judith and Richard’s sculptures have been exhibited in galleries all over the world.
“We jokingly say to the kids while pointing to the tons of treasured trash, ‘Someday kids, this will all be yours.’ ”
“We have found so many unusual things,” Richard added. “Toy soldiers (264 as of today), a ballot box lid from a local and contested election, a toy oil truck we dated from 1949, hair curlers, super balls, and plastic flowers. We love finding what we don’t recognize and doing the research to discover its origin. While arranging our compositions, the plastic is seen only for color and form, not the things they once were. The pieces become akin to strokes of paint coming off a palette. Often at the beach, we will find ourselves ‘shopping’ for a certain color or size to fill out an abstract idea.
“Our mission is make whatever we do beautiful – to give pleasure,” Richard continued. “We’d like people to become aware of plastic in their lives and how each colorful piece says something about the thermoplastic junk of our throwaway culture.”
Judith and Richard’s collages are available as limited-edition prints, the sales of which support their clean-up campaign. www.beachplastic.com.
Reclaimed Lamp Artist Gilles
Eichenbaum, aka GARBAGE
“I was born in 1959 in Marseille, France, but I have traveled and lived in more than 40 countries around the world,” said reclaimed lamp artist Gilles Eichenbaum. “My father was a geologist, so we followed him everywhere!
“Growing up, traveling in the middle of nowhere and living most of the time in mining camps, we often lived in ‘real’ houses for only a few months at a time, so we used to reuse old things and invent new objects. I have done this all my life, and in years later, in Paris, my friends liked my work so much, especially my lamps, that I eventually held my first exhibition at the end of 2001. It was so successful that, from that point on, it became my only job.
“Most of the time I just walk into the flea markets, early on Sunday mornings, and wait for something to catch my eye. I also like to look into the garbage on the street. This makes my kids ashamed when we go out to a restaurant and I arrive with half a dozen dirty pieces of metal, an old boiler and two cookie boxes!
“I love to redesign old kitchen objects. And I’m not restricted by ‘spaces’: a teapot can be used in a bedroom, an old heater in the dining room, a motorbike tank in the office. If I had a philosophy, it would be ‘keep it simple and clean.’ ”
To read more about Gilles and to see more of his clever work, go to www.garbage-vpot.com.