Shari Elf: Maximum Creativity at Minimum Wage

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Joshua Tree's Art Queen is home to the World Famous Crochet Museum, an old Foto-mat booth painted lime green and stuffed with crocheted animals, superheroes, tacos and other unlikely objects made of yarn.

There are two garage spaces turned into galleries and the yard around the Crochet Museum is adorned with assemblage pieces, rescued from the desert home of the late folk artist, Moby Dick.

One garage door is held open by a folding chair, with stuffing bursting out of the seams. This is what happens to furniture left outside in the desert. Vinyl upholstery turns brittle, eventually cracks and the insides start working their way out. That doesn't stop people from having furniture outside. Most of the year, the weather permits outdoor living, at least between 40 mile an hour gusts. 

Crochet Museum | Photo: Juan Devis.
Crochet Museum | Photo: Juan Devis.

A swamp cooler keeps an evaporated mist flowing out from under the garage door.

Inside the garage is a show of paintings by Jesse Weidel, who lives in Eureka, California. His work includes portraits of Vladmir Putin paired with Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad, a tribe of Indians huddled around a campfire, with a Volkswagen hippie van parked nearby, various naked bodies, including one who seems to be holding a large inner tube with the words, "Outlaw Sodomy," painted crudely upon it. Another canvas features a fully-dressed blonde woman playing a pink guitar in a real place called Christ Park, a surreal landscape of religious statues in nearby Yucca Valley. The woman with the guitar is Shari Elf, also the curator of the show and co-founder of Art Queen, with ex-boyfriend, New York artist, Randy Polumbo.  

Art Studio | Photo: Juan Devis.
Art Studio | Photo: Juan Devis.

Shari had told Weidel she'd like to be in one of his paintings and he obliged with this portrait.

Art Queen is also Shari Elf's studio, where she commits to putting in at least a few hours a day making art, and where numerous community events are held, such as Joshua Tree Gay Pride, 12 step/artist support meetings and a recent concert by the touring Handsome Family.  

Shari Elf is an artist, singer-songwriter, raw foods chef, community builder, self-healer and 'enforcer of goodness.' Shari's whimsical, 'good and sturdy' art is made from trash and found objects, combined with paint, glitter, feathers, cotton balls and whatever else she finds in the many high desert thrift stores she frequents.

Shari Elf | Photo: Juan Devis.
Shari Elf | Photo: Juan Devis.

Shari is also the driving force behind "Art Not Walmart," a weekly gathering of artists and wanna-become-artists who work under the premise that it's better to make and sell art cheap and make a minimum wage than to go to Yucca Valley and work in one of the big-box behemoths of capitalism.  

Shari is the kindergarten teacher in this Romper Room for (mostly) grown-ups.

"I would like to start today with collaborative pieces, to get us inspired," Shari suggests. Everything made by the Art-Not-Walmartists is, of course, made in the USA, in a couple of hours on any given Tuesday afternoon.  

Shari has everyone sign the piece first, so she doesn't have to chase them down later. "The idea is to sell it fast, so everyone gets comfortable with letting go of their work and gets the good feeling that comes from selling a piece."

Kathy and Ken are discussing a member of the group, who hasn't arrived yet.  

Eleven year old Nathan can be very persistent. "We should all be so assertive," says Cathie. "That's how he was able to sell so many paintings in one night," at a recent opening.

Art Queen | Photo: Juan Devis.
Art Queen | Photo: Juan Devis.

'"Buy this painting. Buy this painting.' Maybe he should be our marketing director!"

Shari's mentor, artist Jack Pierson, advises her to stick to her vision. Art-Not-Walmart work is priced at the calculation of $10 an hour for labor and facility expenses.

"I don't want to be a dictator, but I think we should keep everything very low-priced," Shari agrees.

She brings in a package of elbow pasta for the "Macaroni Challenge." The little noodles are to be glued to a frame and painted gold, to a very ornate effect.

"Is anyone feeling anything other than joy and bliss today?" "Anxiety," answers Leslie, a transgendered 'artist extraordinaire' who works graveyard doing security.

"Go ahead and express that today in your art," Shari suggests.

Four adults and one child are quietly working on their individual boards, for five minutes at a time, with the help of a kitchen timer, then each is passed along to the next.

Crochet | Photo: Juan Devis.
Crochet | Photo: Juan Devis.

Collaborations are done around the table. Leslie is painting the edge of a board that has a sequined Joshua Tree painted on top. Ken has added a crude, stick man to Leslie's red door painting, holding the black brush. On parole and recently sober, the ever-serene Ken is happy with the way another Joshua Tree piece is coming along, with a painted black sky, a smiling, blue sun and a galaxy of rhinestones.

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"I see a red door and I want to paint it black," sings Leslie, also a musician, to illustrate her painting.

A recently discontinued line of t-shirts feature her naive line drawings, depicting idols such as Leonard Cohen, a shirtless Iggy Pop and Jesus, playing with a bunch of kittens. Shari's "What Would Cher Do?" t-shirt was noticed, by Cher herself, recently. Cher then tweeted about the shirt, imploring her fans to buy one and for Shari to raise the price. Most of Shari's limited edition, screen-printed t-shirts, also recycled from thrift stores, go for about $10. The occasional hoodie, nightgown or knitted sweater may be a little higher. Her original works have collector's around the world.

"I started Art Not Walmart because I feel bad that people have to work at minimum wage. I think, if you're willing work at minimum wage, make art. I was a seamstress at $20 an hour and I decided to price my art accordingly. I was being yelled at for doing a job I didn't like doing anymore. It took me two months to transition, starting with selling my art at flea markets."

"I wanted to give other people the opportunity, so I started an artist support group three months ago and Art-Not-Walmart a month later. You just make a declaration, a visualization of what you want and do it."

Dolls by Juan Devis.
Dolls by Juan Devis.
The Golden Rule | Photo: Juan Devis.
The Golden Rule | Photo: Juan Devis.

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