Garbage in, artage out

"We've got, like, 'Sanford and Son' in here, baby!"

Sandra Monday was visibly thrilled as she surveyed the selection of refuse that had been carted into Java Jabbers Coffeehouse for last Saturday evening's Recycadelic Relics art happening. Knick-knacks and castoffs of all shapes and sizes were strewn across a table inside the tiny beatnik hangout, waiting to be turned into an impressionist sculpture by Monday and a handful of her pals in the creative underground.

Sitting in the back of the room, owner Doug Laffin cast an amused eye on the proceedings. A hands-off benefactor in the grand tradition of Pope Leo X, he had given the participating visionaries free reign to create a monument of detritus in his establishment's southwest corner.

"Apparently, they're going to be organized," he chuckled nervously. "That was the promise."

Lead artist Terry Davis certainly appeared focused. A rasta hat draped across his head, the bearded Davis was a scruffy blur of energy as he busily applied an initial layer of junk to the walls. In front of them, he erected a large Styrofoam frame shaped like an elephant, providing a foundation on which further pieces of rubbish could be hung.

Davis told me he had come across the Babar-like icon while working at his day job as a scenic artist -- a gig that had seen him helping to construct the Seuss Landing area of Universal Studios Escape's Islands of Adventure, among other projects.

"But that's work," he clarified. "This is fun. This is me dancing."

Talking trash

Frivolity didn't appear to be in Monday's repertoire. Taking to the stage, she favored the audience with an impassioned defense of the evening's significance.

"There's so much trash in everyone's lives," she propounded, "stuff that just ends up in landfills. This is the country of junk!"

The diatribe continued when Monday sat herself down at my table. Expanding on her public monologue, she railed against the enemies of personal freedom who were stunting our society's intellectual growth. The rogue's gallery of shadowy foes included "Orlando" and "America" (though not necessarily in that order). Even home furnishings were under suspicion.

"I hate furniture," she spat, explaining that much of her happiness arose from renouncing material possessions. "Recycadelic Relics," she said, represented a new use for the clutter that infested all our lives - like her ZZ Top T-shirt, perhaps, which I recognized as about 13 years old.

A succession of artists followed Davis and Monday to the work area, adding their own touches to the collage with duct tape and an electric drill. A recovered Levi's sign became the canvas for a Munch-like portrait of a howling figure, and a naked Barbie doll was hung in effigy from the elephantine trellis. I wasn't certain what statement lay behind that one, but I suspected John Merrick would have approved.

The coffeehouse's young crowd chatted amiably as the labors went on around them. Half were of college age, excitedly discussing music, literature and film with endearing enthusiasm. The other half were slightly older, and their more subdued conversation betrayed a dawning realization that the onset of their thirties was about to replace poetry slams and film festivals with Lamaze classes and investment seminars.

Junk bonding

Despite their differences, both groups meshed seamlessly. Listening to them dish, it was obvious that most of the patrons were regulars who had memorized the details of each other's lives with astonishing accuracy. Forget the arty atmosphere; the real focus was on such universal topics as who was dating who, whose car had died a week after purchase and who among the Java Jabbers staff was the better bowler. For the first time all night, I felt totally at home. I can fake cultural awareness in a pinch, but a strip-mall soap opera is simply closer to my level.

So enthralling was the discourse that it was almost a shock to look up near closing time and discover that the sculpture -- the reason we were all there, remember? -- was complete. And quite the marvel it was, a colorful and meticulously crafted melange of the discarded that would have curried equal favor with Salvador Dali and Oscar the Grouch. Only one issue remained unaddressed: What were they going to do with it?

"That's a good question," Monday gulped, a worried look descending across her previously unflappable countenance. Her colleagues had been so excited by the project that none had taken responsibility for its dismantling or transportation to a new location.

Laffin did the only sensible thing. He closed out the bar, locked his doors and put the decision off for a few days. In the meantime, the new addition would make an attractive backdrop to the coming week's spoken-word sessions. For a while at least, it would be a shrine to the fun we had all had in making something out of nothing.


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