Behind a nondescript front on a nondescript stretch of York Avenue in Highland Park lies MorYork, artist Clare Graham's own Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities. Walking into the 7,000 square foot open space -- divided by furniture, shelves, curtains, and, yes, even cabinets -- one is met by an eye-popping array of art objects he has made from recycled material. That includes furniture made from beverage pop-top tabs and tin can lids; chandeliers and sculpture made from multi-colored buttons, wooden yardsticks, and old teddy bears; and cabinets covered with Scrabble tiles and with squares cut from paint-by-number canvasses.
The building was purchased in 1986 by Graham and his long-time partner Bob Breen, a set decorator, who needed space for storing and displaying the many treasures they'd found on regular forays to the Rose Bowl Flea Market -- and as a studio for their work. It was a former grocery store on York Boulevard and offered cavernous open space and lofty ceilings. "It's not as crowded as it would usually be," Graham explains, almost apologetically, as we walk around exploring. "A lot of things are at the museum."
He's referring to an exhibition at the Craft and Folk Art Museum (CAFAM) in Los Angeles, "Clare Graham & MorYork: The Answer is Yes" (Sept. 14 through Jan. 4, 2015) -- the first solo museum exhibition of his artwork, curated by Brooks Hudson Thomas.
"I'd heard so much about Clare from so many people," says Suzanne Isken, director of CAFAM. "Then Brooks Hudson Thomas had been talking to us about an exhibition, and said you should come see his work. We went to the studio and had a mind-blowing moment, like walking into Ali Baba's cave. Instantaneously, we knew we had to give this guy a show." She appreciates the meticulous craft he brings to his work and to the display of it. "I love that the making is so essential to this show, in a craftsman-like, skilled way. He also designed the show -- down to the square inch where things would be."
The immersive display suggests -- but does not attempt to replicate -- a visit to Graham's studio. Entering the exhibition, you're confronted by one of his cabinets -- the 7 ½- foot tall and 3-foot wide "Copper-Clad Cabinet," covered on the outside with copper. Opening the double doors reveals a blown-up lenticular photograph of Graham's grizzled face with his signature goatee, taken by Grayson Marshall. A series of magnifying glasses are suspended from inside the cabinet, so you can peer at the artist, literally, through different lenses.
The "Copper-Clad Cabinet" is one of 11 cabinets in the show, eight of them arranged in a circle facing outwards in the middle of the main gallery -- all can be opened or closed by visitors. The outside is generally related to the inside. For example, the one covered in Scrabble tiles has an interior lined with pages from a dictionary, and on its shelf sits a set of photography books on MorYork, done by other artists.
To the left are a series of totem poles and arrangements of mysterious bundles, bundles compressed by shrink wrap and tied with string. Teddy bears are inside each bundle, teddy bears Graham rescued from thrift stores and yard sales. "One of the things you see a lot are post- consumer used, post- loved stuffed animals," he says. "They have these sad, wistful puppydog eyes." Every so often an eye or a paw floats to the surface of a bundle, but otherwise the stuffed animals have lost their shape.
Graham has always been a collector of things. Born in Ontario and raised in a family of five children, he recalls how thrifty his mother was. "Mom was one of those people who never threw anything away," he says. "I was second in line, so the bicycle would go to my sister first, then to me, then my sisters, then my much younger brother." Clothing, too, got passed around, clothing often found at thrift shops and charities. He recalls his mother cutting the buttons off clothing that could no longer be reused, and one day he ended up with a dozen Quaker Oats boxes of these buttons. (Some will be on display at the CAFAM exhibition.)
Buttons are often used in his sculpture -- floor-standing pieces that curve like algae or that hang from above, emulating light fixtures or floating sea creatures. Sorted by colors and patterns, they're strung together with stiff wire and shaped. While he does sell his work (through J. F. Chen in Los Angeles), Graham would never sell these buttons, or other items, left from his own family.
"There are things I specifically buy to make my artwork," he says. "On weekends I'm hunting and gathering. I'm out at flea markets, swapmeets, garage sales, thrifts stores, just looking for whatever shows up. It's not like an art store where you can rely on finding the same materials over and over again." Most Saturdays and Sundays are taken up driving around to his favorite haunts -- the monthly Rose Bowl Flea Market remains ones of them. "Certain things I use over and over again, like pop tops, tin can lids, Scrabble games, Jello molds," he says. "Once I collect enough of them, I can do something with them. Sometimes it takes years and years to get to that point."