One Artist's Trash... Is Also Her Art

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BOSTON — Do you ever get perplexed when you buy a piece of fruit and confront that little sticker on the skin? I never know what do to with it. Rachel Perry Welty doesn’t have that problem.

"I’ll come home after grocery shopping and harvest my stickers off the canned goods and the boxes or the fruit and the vegetables," she said. "And I save them all to pieces of wax paper so I can peel them off and use them later."

The Gloucester-based artist uses them to make art. Maybe intricate fruit sticker collages that became a wallpaper-like backdrop for a series of large-scale photographs called “Lost in my Life.” Welty made it specifically for her new retrospective, "24/7," that just opened at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln.

She also made a colorful, kind of grubby tapestry out of twist ties — you know, the ones you find wrapped around bunches of broccoli and fresh parsley? Welty links them together into long strands and said since 1997 she's collected "tens of thousands."

"Karaoke Wrong Number (2005-2009)," 2009, by Rachel Perry Welty. (Courtesy deCordova Museum)
"Karaoke Wrong Number (2005-2009)," 2009, by Rachel Perry Welty. (Courtesy deCordova Museum)

The artist also saves her receipts, price tags, junk mail and Facebook updates. Even voice mail.

For years Welty’s collected wrong number messages. She turned them into a video project combining her face and the voices of strangers called “Karaoke Wrong Number.”

"And I am lip-synching to them," she said in front of the video installation at the deCordova. A message for a guy named Phil comes out of the speakers.

Phil, hi, it’s James Russell again, um, from our conversation…

Now, imagine Welty — a petite woman, blond hair pulled back, wearing a white T-shirt — with a man’s voice coming out of her mouth.

"So what I did was first of all saved the messages and then I listened to them over and over and over again," she said, explaining her process. "I transcribed them, I actually typed up scripts, and I basically learned these people. I figured out what kind of characters I think they are based on the words that they left on my answering machine."

And Welty nails them, every "um" and pause and sigh. The effect is surreal. And very funny.

"There is that total disconnect between my face and then John Fodds from Big Fat Logos in Utah," she said. John Fodds is asking the person he intended to reach to give him a call because the nativity set they ordered is ready.

If you could give me a call back at your earliest convenience we can get this right out to you.

These sorts of common disconnects got Welty thinking. "We’re always just a hair’s-breadth away from completely misunderstanding one another," she said of each mistaken voice mail message. "Somebody listens to it, pushes a button, deletes it, and it’s gone forever. And we do this in our lives daily with all of the information that comes in."

Artist Rachel Perry Welty with the 1,952 items she's photographed — and trashed. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
Artist Rachel Perry Welty with the 1,952 items she's photographed — and trashed. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

"We all have to deal with stuff. We all have to deal with time. We all have to deal with information overload," said Nick Capasso, the deCordova's deputy director of Curatorial Affairs. He pulled together Welty's show.

"We all have to deal with somehow projecting identity in consumer culture. The concepts in the conceptual art are about our lives. You know people see her work and recognize all this, and sometimes it’s funny," then Capasso added with a laugh, "and sometimes it’s not."

Capasso’s been following Welty grow as an artist for 10 years — visiting her studio, offering critiques. And he’s tried many times to get her work shown at the deCordova, without success. As it turns out, Capasso and Welty saved all of the e-mails that have flown between them, including Capasso’s rejection e-mails. Now they’re part of this hard-won show, too, hidden between the pages in the catalog.

"I feel privileged to have been collected," Capasso said. "I feel like a Brillo box!"

But Rachel Perry Welty doesn’t only collect — she actually sheds stuff, too. Every day she chooses one item to donate or trash. It could be a sweater, a block of cheese, a set of dried-up magic markers. Then she photographs it and gives it a number. Today she’s up to 1,952 — and all of the shots are hanging in the artist’s new show.

Andrea Shea Correspondent, Arts & Culture
Andrea Shea is a correspondent for WBUR's arts & culture reporter.



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