Maybe as a child you played the game “I spy with my little eye…“? Or on road trips, the license plate game? Or the letter game (things always get stuck on Q and Z)? I have fond memories of childhood trips driving across America whiling away the hours with things like these. (This was obviously before portable DVD players then hand-held video games then smart phones.) I still love to wander, whether in the car or by foot, and am always on the lookout for new visual information. Unlike a street photographer, though, to whom I imagine any magical scene might appear at any moment, I have a list in my head of visual things I’m looking for as art projects. For example, empty signs across America or fire hydrants in Taos. Not unlike looking for sea shells on the beach. It turns any trip into a treasure hunt and elevates even the most mundane journey into an exciting expedition.

I’m certainly not alone in this pursuit… These trips fall into at least two categories. First, you have artists for whom the object itself becomes the art: The Bechers famous typology photographs of water towers, grain elevators, gas tanks (see the image above), etc.; Mark Dion combing the banks of the Thames to find materials for a wunderkammer; Angus Mccullough’s documentation of the Bushes of Bennington County; and John Gitelson’s collection of “free” signs where he takes the “free” signs from free piles and displays them collectively. Second, you have artists who photograph or otherwise collect material that gets transformed into their work. Afton Love wanders New Mexico looking for rocks, Amy Casey finds just the right buildings and trees to transform into paintings, and I’ve known several artists who trek across different landscapes collecting material from the earth to grind into pigment.

I find this process, different from wandering through thrift stores or browsing eBay, especially joyous because it can be incidental to the principal activity (the drive or walk). You could say that one of art’s many functions is to elevate the mundane… and to me this is a fantastic example of just that. (It is also fun to send artist friends photos that you think they might use in their work… have a friend who paints mushrooms? They get mushroom photos! Although more often than not artists have told me that friends send them totally the wrong type of source material, it is still nice to be thought of.) Art, everywhere.

Share: I imagine there must be countless historical and contemporary artists who practice this? Charles Sheeler must be an example? Please comment on this post and let me know if you have any! And it doesn’t just have to be visual artists… know a poet who uses phrases they find in the wild? Share!