I have been working with found materials for nearly 20 years. I often consider and wonder where my attraction to materials began. I’ll cite two early events that I think steered me in the material direction. First, on many occasions when visiting my maternal grandparents in Grafton, Massachusetts, we would take a walk on the abandoned railroad tracks. My grandparents were interested in hunting for copper “year” nails that identified what year the railroad tie had been installed. On one of these walks, we discovered an old household dump just off the side of the tracks. We began digging. We unearthed old pieces of pottery, metal, old plastic fountain pen cases (one with a gold tip that I still have). We began collecting old pottery pieces that seemed to match and attempted to piece together a large old crock. That project was abandoned without sadness: a material re-assemblage that just lost its inherent interest. At this same time, I began discovering old house dumps near my childhood home and digging and finding old bottles and random scraps of someone’s life.
The second and more frequent event was our Saturday morning trips to the town dump. It was on these trips that our father would drop my brother and sister and me off at the metal scrap pile while he threw things away. We would search for shiny or rusty hubcaps and other metal things that caught our eye. We also were allowed to explore the burn pile if it was not smoking and would occasionally unearth a melted bottle or strange hulk of disfigured plastic.
Dump-picking morphed into thrift and antique shopping in my teens, 20s and 30s and when I moved to Phippsburg in 2001 my dump hunting reignited with new possibilities.
The Phippsburg Transfer Station is every scavenger’s dream. You drive in to find a trailer to the right with a built on lean-to which covers large donated items that people may take away. (This trailer is a give-and-take shop sometimes called “Martha’s,” in honor of a long time much-loved Transfer Station attendant, or “The Plaza” because it sounds good).
To the left is the woodpile. It’s exactly that, a large pile of wood. Doors, scrap wood, chairs, fence, shingles, bureaus, beams, old, new, in between. Same policy… Take what you want.
Around the corner is the metal pile. Water heaters, refrigerators, freezers, tools, fencing, lawnmowers, grills, fans, car parts, pipes, wire, buckets, gutters… you name it.
Next to the metal pile is the tire pile. No explanation needed.
When I first moved to town it quickly became a thing to do on Saturdays. Go to the dump, throw your trash, recycle and poke around. Did I need something for the house? A wheelbarrow for my front yard to put flowers in?
It quickly became a source of art material. I began collecting galvanized washtubs, I think because the cellar of the house I was raised in was full of them. They held nails of various sizes and anything else that could be contained by the bucket. I loved the patina, the marks, the dots, the scratches, the “skin” of the metal. At the same time, I began collecting containers and other domestic curiosities: old fuel tanks, metal heaters, scales, thermoses, anything with an interesting skin. These buckets and objects began to accumulate in my studio and eventually became one of my earlier series of assemblages. I began appropriating the objects and containers inside of the galvanized washtubs. I would secure them to the inside bottom of the tub and then install a wire to the bottom of the tub and hang them on the wall. The tubs served as a type of frame but they were much more important to the overall product. I enjoyed them singularly and also had the opportunity to install larger numbers of these as installations.
On the heels of these tub assemblages, I discovered a large metal document cabinet. It had many large drawers that were aged and rusted at a level that nearly forced me to take them to my studio immediately. These drawers began being “holders” for other shallow objects that would fit under the document “flap” of the drawer. These were also constructed so the bottom of the drawer would hang against the wall with the handles of the drawer above the drawer “interior” with its object(s).
My most recent series stems from an attempt at spring cleaning a few years ago. I was trying to make some space in my closet and kept coming up against shirts or sweaters that I loved but never wore. I wondered and thought about this for some time and ultimately decided to bring these items into my studio. It was my way of letting them “live on.” Some of the fabrics that I find resemble things that I may have desired as a child but ultimately never had. Some of the fabric can feel a certain way or be a color that signals me to use it.
As clothes and blankets began to accumulate in my studio so did truck tire inner tubes from the tire pile. I have a relationship with tubes that goes back to my adolescence. My father was a truck driver and each summer he would bring a good tube home for us to use as our pool float for the summer, and if things went well it would be used in the winter as a sled.
The fabric and rubber began a relationship that started a series of assemblages that are usually built over pieces of scrap wood.
I choose fabric and rubber fragments that seem to me to have a similar patina and “age” or perceived level of use. Colors, patterns, and sometimes the actual material can be reasons for the pairing. I am interested in and consider where the materials were made, who made them, was it by machine or by hand, were they used/worn for a long time? How were they used? For what? Why were they ultimately discarded?
I wrap and fold the fabric and rubber and work to showcase what I consider their best or most interesting features: tears, stains, threadbare sections, bumps, accumulations—marks of life.
I do think ultimately these assemblages are about people, with life experiences and chance tossed into the mix.
I make every attempt to use as much of, if not all, of the fabric and rubber that I incorporate into this recent series. I don’t like to waste things or contribute to the world’s trash crisis. I like to think that I am making the world a little nicer for those who choose to live with my art.
Image at top of page: Dan Dowd, Untitled, found galvanized basin, thermos, 26 round x 12 in.
All Photos courtesy of Dan Dowd.