July 18, 2015

Photo Essay: A Curious Collection of Castoffs as Craft

Sometimes someone invites you into their own magical world, and all you had to do was ask.

One such person is Clare Graham, a retired Disney art director who has taken over a former Safeway grocery store (subsequently used as a roller rink and for slot car races) with his creations and collections. His MorYork Gallery doesn't really have regular opening hours, or a sign at the front, but I asked if I could come, and he said yes.

Upon entering the studio—where Clare both creates and displays his work—the first thing you notice is the furniture covered in pop tabs and metal can lids. But, unlike at most galleries, here you can sit on it.

Clare is a self-proclaimed obsessive-compulsive in his craft, never allowing a patch to remain uncovered, even on the underside or some other unseen area of a chair or a table.

If you look up from your seated position, you notice unusual sculptures, rising from the tables and dangling from the ceiling.

Some are like totems...

...while others are arranged in winding, repeating patterns reminiscent of DNA or the winding paths of growing plants.

He utilizes found materials ranging from bottle caps to buttons to titanium beads, almost all of which is "post-consumer"—actually used by someone in some manner, handled and hugged and then, for some reason, discarded.

He has an affinity for certain materials, particularly those once used by children—yardsticks, dominoes, and paint by numbers, among others.

He can find uses for nearly anything that inspires him, from teddy bear eyeballs to baby doll heads. Who knows what they must've seen before coming here.

Imagine the prayers that linger on these rosaries...

...and the drinks that these sticks once swizzled.

It all adds to their patina—the saliva...

...the fingerprints...

...the memories...

...and the hopes and dreams.

It is the character of these items—and the feeling Clare gets when he first finds them—that he tries to recreate when giving them new life in his collection.

The materials generally inspire the piece. Clare finds something that catches his eye—say, letter tiles—and then creates a tiled cabinet, the letters arranged in anagrams.

And then he fills the cabinet with objects of intrigue.

Visitors are welcome to touch everything, including opening cabinet doors.

There's even a cabinet whose exterior is entirely devoted to what Clare calls "roadkill"—crushed and discarded detritus that he's collected from the side of the road.

What lies inside the drawers?

It's yours to discover.

There are no mistakes here, and everything has its place.

Clare is so aware of his surroundings, he knows when a cabinet has been opened by someone, even if they closed it back up again.

The intriguing items that Clare collects and doesn't turn into sculpture each have their own place as well—though sometimes they need to be moved around to make room for something new.

And there's always something new.

Clare's own show at the Craft & Folk Art Museum in LA closed earlier this year...

...and now he's curating a new show for them, focused on wire art, which accounts for for some of his more recent acquisitions.

Given that Clare has crafted with bird feathers, animal skulls, and human teeth, there isn't really anything that's off-limits to use, as long as it inspires him (and isn't toxic when manipulated).

One of his more recent projects is a sculpture covered in chewing gum—the Already Been Chewed kind. I was happy to contribute my own post-consumer material to his work, pressing it gingerly onto the underlying twine so it would stick. I'd only been chewing it for a few minutes, but between my saliva, molar imprints, and fingerprints, I think it's got just enough patina, at least to get it started. Maybe it'll carry some of my memories with it.

Clare does take donations but he prefers the hunt, scouring flea markets and estate sales on the weekends and the early mornings. Some dealers try to sell him things they think he'll like, but he prefers to explore, and let the items speak to him.

And they do speak. They tell him what objets d'art they shall become. And they tell him when he has completed the craftwork. There are no mistakes, and there are no do-overs. Nothing gets scrapped.

The materials are not merely recycled at MorYork Gallery—they are reborn.

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