Home Columns The Way I See It: Making Beauty from the World’s Leavings

The Way I See It: Making Beauty from the World’s Leavings

Dina the Dump Lady of Deer Isle, Maine, is Robin Hood without the crime. We stopped by her house on a recent vacation to explore her yard, teeming with racks of clothing, small appliances, odd bits of furniture, bassinets and baby strollers, tchotchkes, and kids’ toys.

Bubbly and energetic, Dina’s known locally as the person to call when someone dies or is moving and can’t deal with all the stuff. She clears out the houses of authors, wealthy summer people, and artists; cleans and fixes up her finds; and runs an all-but-free boutique for the working poor and less fortunate in her area.

As connoisseurs of yard sales, second-hand shops, and flea markets — it’s the thrill of the chase, because, hey, you just never know — we found a couple of minor treasures and had to bargain her up to $2 for the lot.

Though some of her neighbors complain about the messy lawn — even as she’s busy every day curating, rearranging, and sheltering her collection from rain showers — to us, she’s a public benefactor, a visionary in the Green Economy we need to develop if the planet is going to survive.

Taking that vision in another direction is Peter Beerits, a sculptor we found a ways down a quiet road on the east side of the island. Peter and his wife run Nervous Nellie’s Jams and Jellies, which produces delicious preserves, but is something of a front to support Peter’s art.

He creates magical worlds out of what the world has thrown away: rusty metal and scrap lumber, discarded radios, film projectors, ornate but rickety coal stoves, old beer cans, electric guitars — everything including the kitchen sink. A walk through the 12 acres of woods surrounding Nellie’s offers the enchantment of Oz without the scary wizard or flying monkeys (though there were a few monkeys in the mix) or the Bread and Puppet barn in Glover with a less eerie vibe.

One path leads you to the Grail Castle, where King Arthur’s knights, with colanders and pot-lids for helmets, feast on a wooden turkey at a Round Table. There’s a wooden cathedral with a Pietà, a sorrowing woman in the front pew with her dead son in her lap. Nearby, a lanky Abe Lincoln in red and black wood leans up against a tree. And there’s a three-story house first built as a stage set, dimly lit with red lamps and stained glass windows. That one’s haunted for sure.

Another path takes you to a ghost town, except that the ghosts are tangible: a Delta juke joint band with piano, guitars, and bass, its players frozen in wood and metal in mid-strum; and a Western town with a sheriff lounging in front of his jail cell, poker players in a saloon (one of whom has a real horse skull for a head), and a Chinese laundryman hard at work.

It’s like one of the weirdest dreams you’ve ever had, except there’s a benignity to it, a sense that everything in the world has something of the marvelous if we only have the imagination to see it.

Deerits’ work made me think of other artists-of-the-discarded I admire. Chief among them is Ghanaian-Nigerian sculptor El Anatsui, who, like Beerits, began working with scrap wood. More recently, he has been creating monumental “metal cloth” draperies out of discarded bottle caps, candy wrappers, strips cut from old cans, and other visual pollutants that clog the streets of developing nations and give them an air of neglect and despair.

With a team of assistants and mile upon mile of copper wire, Anatsui collects and transforms such material into colorful, gold-flecked tapestries that could adorn the halls of divine warriors or serve as ceremonial robes for gods, empresses, and giants. To some, his work evokes the golden luxury of a Gustav Klimt painting, but that understates his transformative vision.

We’re lucky enough to own a small piece by another trash-visionary, Charlie Lucas, the “Tin Man” of Selma, Alabama, whom my husband met on a business visit there. Like Beerits, he works in discarded metal, creating haunting masks, murals, collages, and set-pieces that explore the violence and tragedy of the African-American journey and the Native American heritage of his home.

Lucas’s style recalls the African Cubism that inspired Picasso and, more recently, the work of the short-lived Jean Michel Basquiat. “I don’t make these things for the money,” Lucas says of his art. “I make them for the freedom of my mind.”

Locals of long standing may recall Montpelier’s collective foray into treasure-from-trash art, “SculptCycle 2008,” in which area artists turned old bicycle parts into whimsical, graceful sculptures that can still be seen around the city.

It’s worth encouraging more of this kind of vision as we make the vital transition to a greener and more creative economy.