Susan Richards, Archives Alchemy. Philadelphia Dumpster Divers at the National Archives
- “As an artist, I am inspired by Outsider and Vernacular artists, Dada, and third world people who make art from the trash heap of civilization. I love art as a vehicle for creating community,and as a voice for social change, as well as for humor, and for pure pleasure. I am especially inspired by anonymous artists from every culture of the world, over the centuries, who made art from the depths of their souls, moved by awe and wonder at life itself and its mysteries. In a former life I was an Art History major at Columbia University. Life in the Big Apple was my best art education.” – Susan Richards View Susan Richards’ complete profile
- The Dumpster Divers of PhiladelphiaThe National Archives had miles of microfilm and piles of debris from moving records and renovations, doomed for the dumpster. “Call the Dumpster Divers!” Who? The Dumpster Divers of Philadelphia are a group of over 40 found object artists, their artwork as diverse as the group and materials used. They were officially recognized with a 2012 City of Philadelphia Mayor’s Tribute for “helping to raise the consciousness of art lovers and heightened awareness of taking a creative approach to support a more sustainable city, country and world.”This show is an unusual collaboration between two very different Philadelphia institutions and demonstrates the infinite possibilities available when we think outside the dumpster. Leslie Simon, Director, Research Services, the National Archives at Philadelphia said, “I challenged theDumpster Divers of Philadelphia to create art out of the debris from our moves and renovations. Materials included decommissioned ladders and carts, miles of microfilm and readers, aged leather book bindings, as well as decommissioned electronics and displays, posters, photographs, and lots of red tape.” – Archives Alchemy
“I am inspired by the Feminist Art Movement, especially its emphasis on art as a means for creation of community and as a voice for social change. I have always been influenced by ‘outsider’ artists, Dada, and third world people who make art from the trash heap of civilization. I am especially inspired by the anonymous artists from every culture of the world, over the centuries, who made art from the depths of their souls, moved by awe and wonder at life itself and its mysteries.” – Susan Richards artist statement
Susan Richards is an artist with the ability to coalesce a collection of disparate objects, dissembled parts of modern life, by creating artworks that speak with a dialect all their own. Strong, strange narratives emerge from the assemblage using bricolage – ‘(French for “tinkering”) is the construction or creation of a work from a diverse range of things that happen to be available, or a work created by such a process’. Each of the artworks Susan Richards created for the National Archives assemblage show is dramatic, thoughtful and articulate, filled with information rich media to communicate her point of view from the inside out.
Home Movies uses the metaphor of the bird cage to represent the situation of many women in contemporary society, home-keepers responsible for maintaining the health and welfare of the family through house-keeping, cleaning, child rearing and endless maintenance. The film scavenged from the archives say’s. ‘Look at me. Watch all that I do.’ The doll/father is literally upside down, suspended, trapped, his conundrum of expectations and responsibilities turned into a movie clip that is unbelievably real. It’s hard to look at at first, the disarray and depiction of entrapment is beautifully disguised in objects designed for preserving and protecting. The bird cage, the baby shoes, the life on film speaks of feminism, the male gaze and the need for a fully unfettered personal identity. The vernacular of visual cultural cues presents assemblage as narrative loaded with cultural feedback and buzz.
Just as there is a ‘male gaze’ story going on in the works, the groin gaze of Your National Capital Beckons You really messes with my head over the meaning of power. Are kitties more influential than the Statue of Liberty? What does handsome mean? What’s it like for a boy? The hegemony of power icons from pure bred beings, man or dog, social hierarchy and power symbols vibrate with an intense hyperpower.
Immigrants Prayer is an action oriented art statement combining text, content, symbols and memes in a minimalist assemblage of bricolage loaded with information. The story plays out like a Faulkner novel with the prayerful man pleading to be just allowed to make his own way. Washing clothes on a washboard represents, family, caring, love, and hope for tomorrow. The family portrait, a universal theme, posing quietly on the rippled surface, looking for the key to the resolution of their dilemma through promises of hard work, diligence and honesty.
Assemblage art can be confounding to consider. The process raises so many questions, we know the National Archives wanted the Philadelphia Dumpster Divers to make new artworks for the show. Finding that particular scrap of document filled with semiotically charged language about the human condition paired with the washboard is so random. It really makes you wonder what the artist was doing when these things came together, integrating a socio-political statement through bricolage and creating new context. The whole idea of taking materials from the National Archives adds an extra gooey layer of history and time.
“I’m proud that Ann Keech asked me to assist her with the show’s sign at the center of the quilt. It was a lot of fun working on it together and I enjoyed putting together the spines on the ends – truly bookending it.” – Susan Richards
There are so many cool Philadelphia artists in Archives Alchemy: Betsy Alexander and Burnell Yow! of Raven’s Wing Studio, Alden Cole’s Conscious World of Art, Eva Preston, Linda Lou Horn, Ellen Benson, Toni Nash, Carol Cole…the list of artists is long all, each of them took objects from the archives that had either been digitally cataloged or was simply disintegrating and made something amazing and new. The Divers reintegrate the elements of modern life, little bits of someone’s own mastery that are doomed for the dumpster into a magical mosaic of deep thought art.
‘As a loosely bound collective of classically trained and self-taught artists the Dumpster Divers’ unique found object artwork has been exhibited at the American Visionary Art Museum, Noyes Museum of Art, Perkins Art Center, Please Touch Museum, the Garbage Museum and many other regional and national exhibitions. They are featured in books such as Found Object Art(Schiffer Art Book), books 1 and 2. They established South Street galleries that have entranced more than fifty thousand people, while recycling these abandoned storefronts into viable neighborhood businesses. In the words of their founder, Neil Benson, “Trash is simply a failure of the imagination.”
Thus, in a new kind of alchemy, this partnership between the National Archives at Philadelphia and the Dumpster Divers of Philadelphia preserves, conveys and interprets stories of our pasts hidden in words and objects.’
Archives Alchemy: The Art of the Dumpster Divers, April 24, 2014. Gallery Hours listed below. Location: National Archives at Philadelphia, 900 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107-4292 (Entrance on Chestnut Street).
The National Archives at Philadelphia
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the record keeper of the Federal government. About 2% of all records created are preserved permanently and are available to the public, whether exploring family history, proving a veteran’s military service, or researching an historical topic. The National Archives at Philadelphia, one of 15 research facilities across the country, holds records of federal courts and agencies operating in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. The records range from hand written 18th century customs manifests to 20th century scientific data.
Calendar Listing: The Dumpster Divers of Philadelphia are exhibiting their unique found object artwork created for the National Archives at Philadelphia. Opening Reception January 10th, 5:00 – 7:30pm at the National Archives, 900 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107-4292, 215-606-0101. Show runs from Jan. 10 – April 24, 2014. www.dumpsterdivers.org
Gallery Hours of Operation:
M-F: 8:30 am – 4:45 pm. Second Saturday of each month: 8 am – 4 pm. A Photo ID is required to enter Federal Buildings.
Address: National Archives at Philadelphia, 900 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107-4292, 215-606-0101
Photographs for this post courtesy of Susan Richards.
Written by DoN Brewer except where noted.
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