Found Objects: Hard to Find 

Masters of assemblage make an art of scrounging.

Critics laud Louise Nevelson's iconic Cascade, a 75-square-foot assemblage of painted wood owned by SFMOMA, for its rhythmic interplay of form and shadow. If you're an artist of a certain persuasion, however, your first response to Nevelson's work might be, "Where did she get all that stuff?"

For those whose work depends on transforming detritus into art, finding found objects takes a lot more work than it used to. In a tight economy and a patina-challenged environment, it seems like everyone is either an eBay power seller or an assemblageur. This is not a bad thing -- but scrounging materials requires tenacity.

When West Oaklander JoJo Razor began the Recovered Bottle Project in 1996, a bike ride around her neighborhood yielded plenty of the half-pint flasks she needed. Razor is a conceptual artist who works with glass, and for this series, she etched the stories of recovered alcoholics into the discarded bottles and gave them to others to hold for a year, then pass along. But as the economy got tighter and recycling got easier, bottles were quickly snatched off the street.

"For years I have been in competition with the homeless and bottle collectors," she says. "Finally, I decided I could just hire them." For the past six months, she has relied on Vincent, a homeless neighbor, paying him 25 cents a bottle -- more than the recycling centers. Now she has an unusual friendship and a backlog of bottles, more than enough for her "How to Get to Hell" series of maps made from broken glass.

When Presley Martin moved from Pittsburgh to Oakland five years ago, he noticed a lot more competition for castoffs. But he discovered a treasure trove washed up on the shores of Richmond. Martin often groups hundreds of similar objects, such as plastic forks or pieces of chewed gum that he mounts on insect pins.

Still, this is not an endless resource. The wads of gum caught Martin's eye after the Coastal Cleanup Project, in which he participated, had stripped shoreline of more obvious debris. He thinks his foraging may actually have made a dent at his favorite spot.

Alamedan Clint Imboden is another who shops for his castoffs. One ongoing project, building geodesic spheres from hacksaw blades, requires 270 for each sphere. His day job gives him a two-hour lunch break, which he uses to scour the Coliseum flea market. When he started the series, he'd pay up to a dollar apiece for the blades; now, he's willing to wait for cheaper prices. "I can go three or four days without finding any," he says, "then find fifteen or twenty in one day. There's no rhyme or reason to it. It takes patience more than anything else."

Patience can always use a hand, and helpers become part of the circle. Berkeley sculptor Susan Danis often assembles organic materials like bones, roots, eggs, and rubber. She wheedled a dentist's office -- after many others rejected her -- into saving teeth for her. When she decided to build a giant hairball, she offered a salon chocolates in return for pitching severed locks into a container she provided. The stylists felt like part of her team and proudly hung a picture of her work in their break room.

"People have been so good to me and have gone out of their way to help me," Danis says. "I spend most of my time on my own in the studio, and it's a pleasure to enjoy bonds of affection with people in the community."

For most scroungers, the hunt is part of the fun. Scrappers are also driven by a conservationist's sensibility. Too conscious of the abbreviated life cycles of products, they're hesitant to add to the stream. "I always had this feeling that there was so much stuff in the world already," Martin says, "that I didn't want to use new things, but to pick and choose from what's out there and arrange it in a different way."

Moreover, in our age of mass reproduction, these artists crave the authenticity with which use and abuse have imbued their finds. "There's more of a richness to the materials, because they've been booted around by their users for a while," Danis says.

Certainly, it would be better if no more flotsam washed up on Richmond's shores, but -- despite the increased competition for certain kinds of rubbish -- it's not gonna happen. So, instead, these artists throw up their arms to embrace it. "It seems like the universe is overflowing with stuff," Danis says.

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