In the hands of Clare Graham, everyday castoffs go from litter to glitter
Annie Block -- Interior Design, 8/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
The artist with his 7-foot-tall tower of 2,500 Scrabble tiles.
Miscellaneous yardsticks, all 2,000 found at L.A.'s flea markets and garage sales.
A cabinet shingled with cantops.
Side tables made from Scrabble boards glued and nailed together, then screwed to the top of bent steel legs.
Can-top walls in White Webb's bedroom at the 2008 Kips Bay Decorator Show House in New York.
Photography: From top: Michael Tobias (4); Björn Wallander.
Next time you open a Heineken, think twice about tossing out the cap—there's someone who'd love to get his hands on it. Clare Graham, a Los Angeles artist-designer, has been a lifetime collector of things small, neglected, and often landfill-worthy, from bottle caps and can lids to swizzle sticks and dominoes. Earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in the fine arts at California State University, Long Beach, and also teaching sculpture there gave Graham the formal background for creating his work. But childhood visits to the Canadian iron mines his father managed, stints at Disneyland, and weekends spent at L.A.'s famous flea markets have been equally influential.
For more than 20 years now, he has turned multitudes of odds and ends into jaw-dropping surface treatments for tables, chairs, and even entire walls. This past spring, he collaborated with White Webb on a bedroom at the Kips Bay Decorator Show House in New York.
Clearly, you're a collector by nature. How did that start?
As one of five children, my formative years were consumed by turf protection and self-definition. My father and brother were very mechanical. I wasn't, so I collected and assembled bits and pieces of nature that weren't necessarily usable—leaves, stones, crystals from the iron mines. I had a rolltop desk that allowed me to categorize everything in nooks and crannies.
When did you transition into man-made items?
During my time at Disneyland, which began in 1968 with me dressed up as Goofy and evolved into managing all the visual support for parades, stage shows, and movie premieres. Having to design and construct sets and signage took me to the flea-market world. That's where I encountered things like the "swizzle-stick collectors' society." I once saw rusted can tops staple-gunned all over a table and thought, I can do that. And I have.
How did those can tops get to Kips Bay?
I met Matthew White in the '80's at the Rose Bowl Swap Meet in Pasadena, over a crusty red tole tray we both coveted. He got the tray—which I found again, years later, at an estate sale—and our shared aesthetic grew into a great friendship. I've since done pieces for him personally and for White Webb clients. When they got the Kips Bay bedroom, they commissioned my metallic "boiserie" for two whole walls, plus a radiator cover.
What happened next?
They gave me the dimensions, and I set to work building seven plywood substrate panels. Then Ilaid out the lids on my worktable and began to "shingle" them one by one. Steel lids range in size from 1 to 8 inches in diameter, and they look like copper, brass, or silver, shiny or matte, depending on how they're treated for food safety. There's also right-side-up and upside-down. It's like a painter's palette. Ultimately, it took four weeks and 13,000 lids, each hammered to the substrate with nickel-plated escutcheon pins, which have faceted heads that sparkle subtly.
Was that your largest piece to date?
No, I sold two 8-foot-tall urns to Copia, the Napa Valley wine center. Someone from the center had seen them in an Oakland Museum of California exhibit called "Hello Again: A New Wave of Recycled Art and Design." Each urn has a steel pencil-rod framework strung with 46,000 caps. One is all used caps, which have a warm patina, and the other is unused, with a crisper gleam. The curator of the show actually alerted me to state recycling agencies I hadn't known of.
What are your other sources for materials?
Basically anyone I tell what I'm doing provides me with weekly savings from their trash heap—friends, restaurants. A family-style Italian restaurant down the street from my house in Los Feliz is my biggest supplier of 1-gallon lids.
Where do you store everything?
My studio is a 1933 Safeway supermarket turned roller rink, with 7,000 square feet and 25-foot bow-truss ceilings, so thankfully I have lots of room. Small items—room keys, Scrabble tiles—are stored in 35-gallon trash cans. Mattress springs get stacked. Steel lids are in file boxes. Soda cans have their tops and bottoms sliced off and are then cut open with scissors to lie flat in file boxes, too.
What items have you begun collecting most recently?
Aluminum Jell-O molds. I'm currently spending countless hours combining and recombining them until they're comfortable.
Is your work outsider art? Furniture design?
I'm too aware of art trends to be an outsider artist, too undisciplined and scattered to be a furniture designer, and too aggressive to be a folk artist. I'm just happy to organize chaos and awaken others to the beauty in disregarded objects.