Danville exhibit: Artists find creativity in throwaways
By Lou Fancher
From discarded pianos, misprinted yardsticks, unused house paint, abandoned glass bottles and even Peet's coffee mixed with "secret ingredients," wondrous works of art can be made.
Don't believe it?
Visit the Village Theatre Art Gallery's "Lost and Found" exhibit in Danville now through April 25 and witness the vintage creativity and master craft of artists John Barry, Larry Berger, Joe Bologna, Phillip Glashoff, Wes Horn, Cassandra Tondro and Josef Twirbutt. The artists, selected by Gallery Director Marija Nelson Bleier, lift castoff objects and materials some people might call throwaways to another category.
"The work on the card (used to advertise the show) was done by John Barry," Bleier says. "It repurposes nose strips into butterflies."
The colorful winged creatures flitting across a cerulean blue background are just the beginning of the show's intrigue. Beyond the skill of the artists, the works precede modern-day "green" art fetishes or fads and hark back to American Folk Art traditions while thrusting forward to contemporary relevance.
"I was at the flea market looking at a collection of yardsticks. The owner told me that they had been used as a wainscoting," Berger recalls. "That got me thinking about how I could design a cabinet and cover it in yardsticks."
The Livermore artist considers himself an urban forester and relies on images he "sees" in his mind to fabricate wooden lamps, dressers, cabinets, chairs, tables and benches. Reading influences into his work, hints of Southwest Indian textiles and basket-weaving combine with gentle humor and an upstate New York Adirondack furniture sensibility to result in funky and simultaneously sophisticated forms. Berger's work inspires both admiration and a smile.
And you'll find yourself grinning at the ingeniousness of Alamo-based Bologna, who says being "super-ecological" by repurposing materials can also be called "frugal." At age 19, he began making floor lamps out of old car parts. Anyone coming from a place of low income as artists often do appreciates reuse, he says.
Unlike Berger, who rarely sketches his creations beforehand, Bologna comes from a career as an architect and draws his scrap metal sculptures in great detail.
"I learned long ago that the better you study and understand what you plan to build, the fewer the surprises upon completion," he says.
Even so, he welcomes some surprises.
"I use an organic coating instead of paint on my work. It's made with repurposed espresso 'sludge' from Peet's Coffee, plus some secret stuff. To my initial surprise, the texture and color it adds to the work is rich and exotic," Bologna says.
Predictably, one of his heroes is Simon Rodia, an Italian-American artist who died in 1965. Rodia fashioned steel rebar from railroad yards and incorporated found glass, tiles, sea shells and more into the spiraling, now-famous Watts Tower in Los Angeles.
Danville artist Twirbutt draws energy from another pioneering American, Joseph Cornell, whose assemblies incorporate materials from attics, basements, secondhand shops, junk stores and items collected in the woods, on a beach, or from abandoned household goods, books and photograph albums.
"I started building wood structures with recycled wood in 1962 in my early 30s," Twirbutt says.
Since then, one-man shows and exhibitions, primarily in New York City (where his 400-square-foot mural was built to adorn the main lobby of the city's police headquarters in 1973) and international museum collections, illustrate the evolution of an artist and a genre. Twirbutt says that increased awareness about environmental issues led recycling to find its place in the field of art.
Rising to the challenge of taking a discarded object, placing it in a new environment, and re-envisioning it's utility, life-span and status, he once transformed an abandoned piano he found in a New York City dump into an art activity.
"The interesting composition of multiple, differently shaped, ready-to-use wood, metal and felt parts of the instrument excited my imagination," Twirbutt says.
Like his fellow artists, Twirbutt says interacting with objects -- cutting open an old piece of furniture to find its wood grain has deep, beautiful dimensionality, for example -- provides mysterious, unexpected rewards. Different ways of knowing an object, he says, can breathe new life into old things otherwise destined for landfills.