There are times when I am like a magpie, or to paraphrase Joni Mitchell, "a black crow flying...diving down to pick up on every shiny little thing." Of course, much of what I stop to pick up along a sidewalk, or perhaps while exploring a vacated apartment, is only shiny in my mind's eye. Take, for example, the cigarette break at work during where I passed what I thought to be a dark brown piece of corrugated cardboard in the alley. At first I merely thought about the ways that litter seems to gather and become especially prominent on blustery days, but as I was heading back something about the shape of it caught my attention. It was then I noticed that the object was actually plastic, a milk-chocolate-brownie-colored piece that looked as if someone had nibbled off its edges. On even closer inspection I realized it was the bas relief of a structure, a souvenir depicting Washington Cathedral, and not far from it were the two broken corners that completed its frame. I picked up and put the pieces in my pants’ pocket, wondering if someone in a fit of pique had hurled it from a window or if a gust had come through that person's cubicle and tore it off the wall. I could picture it sailing, a tiny raft, a bit of refuse on its journey, quite happy to be saved by a garbage picker who just happened to walk by.
What will I do with this thing? I don’t know yet. Maybe glue it together and use it for rubbings, for stencils? Incorporate it into some future art piece?
All of the spaces where I've lived have accumulated these sort of fragments, not necessarily organized in any sort of cohesive fashion, nor even stored intelligently for preservation purposes. I am a dumpster diver with snobbish aesthetics, a bag person with a strange artistic strain. There used to be some sort of guilt or shame about this, but as I've gotten older and as much of this detritus has found its place in various art projects, I've come to the conclusion that this quirk in my nature might be doing the environment some good and is far less macabre than it might appear.
On occasion I may be asked where a particular scrap originated from – an arrowhead, jewelry bit or old lighter holder depicting a jade whale – before winding up in a mixed media artwork, but many of these things now have a sort of mist about their roots, keeping their secrets like curves within sea shells. This is the case even for materials I have painted on and glued things to, for I am also a recycler of found canvasses and paintings that others have chucked. Sometimes I decide either to paint over them and sometimes I allow details of the original composition to come through.
I have two equally distinct memories of how I came across an old three-piece mirror I instantly recognized as a future “altarpiece”, but again there is that mistiness about location. It is the seeing and bringing home of the actual object that is most clear. The mirrors were still attached to the backing, their shininess giving them away in the darkness in a pile of trash. Solitary insomniac hours are a good time to rummage through what others have discarded.
In any case, vanity be damned (though I kept them and later used them as backings in makeshift tableaus) I wasn't really interested in the mirrors. They caught my attention initially, but it was the shape of the backing, the curves of the three panels, held together by a couple of somewhat rusty hinges that had really called to me. Seeing a potential triptych altarpiece in a junked mirror is just the sort of thing that gives me the frisson of creative excitement – the wondering about exactly what images would arise as I removed the mirrors for instance, or the technical aspects of canvas vs. paper as a surface for the backing. And there is also excitement in thinking that this choice of ultimately composing angels on the piece – the sweep of their wings, their eternal task such as dropping rose petals – was offered to me by what somebody else had tossed out.
The complete altarpiece is now stowed away in a zipped pillowcase in my own cellar. After I die it may one day find itself heaped with rest of my work on its way to a landfill, just another orphaned object among many. It seems to me the triptych acknowledges that fate with something like tender compassion and grace – and for that I am grateful.
~Stephen Mead is a New York-based artist and writer. His latest work is an art-text hybrid, "According to the Order of Nature (We too are Cosmos Made)". He is also working on a memoir, "A Thousand Beautiful Things", which consists of ruminations on the rooms where he resides and the objects they contain.
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.