Although I am a musician, I never really considered myself an “artist” because I always thought that one had to be able to draw and paint beautifully detailed and shaded still life, portraits, nature scenes, etc. When I was a kid I could barely draw the pirate on the matchbook cover that would qualify a young artist to a dubious "scholarship" opportunity. But I have always loved the collage-like album covers from the 1950's "exotica" recordings as well as the work on the 1960's jazz and psychedelic records, so I just spent my youth listening to music and envying the work of Cal Schenkel, the artist responsible for the covers on Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention lps. Even as a musician I guess I was always subconsciously also cultivating my visual muse.
When I turned 34 I needed a steady, good paying gig to support my family, so I became a Letter Carrier for the United States Post Office, where it turns out that carrying mail is the perfect activity for stimulating one’s muse. With so much time alone with my thoughts, my songwriting became effortless. I carried around a cassette recorder to capture my songs on the fly. Soon after, I became very interested in objects that I'd find on the road, such as catalytic converters, hubcaps, rusty hinges etc. I'd dutifully pick up these objects without much of an inkling of what I'd do with them. I would, however, bring the objects back to my basement and organize them somewhat. After a while I realized that the objects reminded me of Schenkel's album artwork, which lead me to research other artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Joseph Cornell, and Willem de Kooning. It was like an epiphany – "You need not be able to draw in a straight line to be an artist!”
Shortly after this insight I began gluing, painting, and screwing together the various objects in my basement. The process is wonderful. One such creation (above), “Give Me the Music Makers”, features a photo of poet and member of the Fugs, Tuli Kupferberg, collaged with a found reel-to-reel box. Another piece (below), “Working for the Man”, includes the figurine of a man bowling from a vintage game, an industrial beater for mixing food, a shoe insert, and a stool.
Over the years, I have become more selective of what objects I'd pick up and sometimes I have no idea of what will become of them, but when the idea arrives, sometimes years later, the project and the objects take on a life of their own. I do get stuck sometimes, but the key to getting unstuck is playing some avant garde recordings in my studio and cleaning up my last mess while sipping bourbon. Before I know it a title strikes me and I am back to gathering objects for the new "canvas". For my family’s sake, it is usually best when it is not a work night because it can be a long meandering dance!
Today I no longer carry mail. I retired last year after 30 years. Now I am a substitute teacher in the same public school system where I attended public school. I always enjoy teaching Art class, and as part of my "lecture" I display some of my work on an easel and explain the process and the excitement. Their eyes widen and they say: "You really sell that stuff"? I think that there is a mix of admiration, confusion, and excitement at the suggestion that Art is not only for the chosen few.
Contribution by Tim McCarthy
Here we highlight featured stories from the archive, contributions by fellow writers and artists, as well as reflections and comments on the value and impact of discarded objects in our world.