Recycled Art: Artist Liz Harter Creates from Found Objects

By Brian D’Ambrosio

Ziploc bags chock-full of upholstery tacks.  Stash boxes of bolts, screws, pins, and thimbles. Tin cans jam-packed with fasteners. Overcrowded coffee cans of square nails.

Liz Harter sees beauty in what is invisible to others.

Surrounded with an assorted of castaway objects, just where they will go or how she decides to re-purpose them is all a matter of chance and feeling.

Some bits and pieces are fused and screwed together to form a cast of doll characters; other objects form alternate personalities, such as the jewelry box with the electrical heads that she is tinkering with.

It’s easy to articulate that Harter is practicing the art of reduce, reuse and recycle. That’s true – she definitely is. But she fills a more ambiguous role, too, for herself, for others. Indeed, beauty in art is often nothing but mystery subdued.

“Some people find someplace or something in my art that they connect to,” said Harter. “Some of it is more esoteric. Some of it has a political edge to it. You can say that my art speaks of peace, unity, love, and tolerance. You can see it in there.”

Fostering ‘mixed media art’, Harter uses found and discarded items to create small figurines such as “The Spice Girls,” a trio of mustard, paprika and turmeric can sculptures.

The heart of Harter’s method involves seeking out unique ‘found’ items – corrugated roofing, wooden Kraft boxes, jewelry bits, satin cording – and then going to work creating something fun and quirky.

“I feel that these items and these things need to be saved and memorialized, I guess,” said Harter. “The ideas just come to me.”

The nourishing of thoughts is a family tradition, she said. Once dubbed as the “queen of small things” by a sibling, Harter can remember a clay-sourced card that she once made for her grandma when she was just 4. From her, she first learned crocheting and sewing. One of her grandfathers was a skilled carpenter and inventor.  Her mother tried her hand in ceramics, acrylics and pastels.

“Creating things was always encouraged for me,” says Harter. “I was driven at a young age to put disparate things together. It’s been wired in my brain. I watched at my grandfather’s side in his workshop as he built our furnishings and invented gadgets. I was at my grandmother’s knee learning to crochet and sew while listening to stories of adolescent adventure. And (I was) at my mother’s table using fiber, metal, clay, paints and even dryer lint.”

The window sill of the shop displays smaller creations of Harter’s. To the right of the doorway, there is a tall doll of metal and tin. At quick glance, there is a mirror combining a Montana license plate and reshaped fork; shoe stretches as wall hooks; assorted handbags and collages; typewriters as display easels.

One of the rooms serves as a makeshift studio – a veritable treasure shop setting Harter free to follow her vision wherever it takes her. It’s all experimental for Harter – a shadow of the divine imperfection, trial and error, a variety of components shaping a variety of views. The plastic buckets of faucet parts, the trading stamp engravers, the staple guns. It may take a few minutes or even a few months, but when the moment in time is right, they are attached or absorbed into the artwork.

Her work table is heaving with dominoes, discarded purple chess pieces, flexible magnets, and bowls of washers.

“Many of these things will get a new life of their own,” said Harter. “They all do. I think they have a purpose in my life – and art. It’s funny how different things just resonate with us.”

Dolls are a common outcome. Harter commonly uses household metals, nails and conduit wires for their body parts.

Tools at Harter’s disposal include a pair of pliers, a drill, and a Dremel power tool. She uses a multitude of merciless glues, including E-6000 Industrial Strength Adhesive. She collects the treasures from yard sales or as in-kind gifts from friends.

“Mostly people give me stuff and they keep coming and bringing,” said Harter. “Stuff just shows up. It’s not quite a Mecca for the stuff people are getting rid, but it’s getting close.”

Some items, like antique coffee pots, are getting harder to find with them being in demand as collectables. Sometimes junk is no more than that. Perhaps the slickest object found on one of her sculptures is the vintage 1940’s newsprint gelled and sanded into a shoe stretcher knob. Indeed, Harter experiments with homemade glass, copper, fabric, cotton, and many other materials.

“But I do have a difficult time with anything that’s plastic,” said Harter. “I’m more into good rusted metal.”

Harter has a filing system, and some of those labels are segregated for game parts; miscellaneous ephemera; vintage photos; calendars; maps and magazine clippings; music scores.

“I love going to estate sales on Sundays,” said Harter. “You know, the day in which everything is half off. I go right for the garage. In fact, I just found this really great screwdriver over here that I got. It’s being utilized. It won’t be used in the art as far as I can tell.”

Harter concedes that her tiny metal persons – indeed, her entire catalogue – would work for a multitude of settings: inside display shelves or in gardens.  No matter what space they come to occupy, she wants them to stand out as unique items. It seems that a lot more men gravitate to her art’s recycled mantra.

“There are a number of men who come in and are attracted to the art. They come in say, ‘wow, I like to do that,’ or ‘I do the same thing. That’s neat.’”

The essence of all art is to have enjoyment in giving enjoyment. And Harter blissfully invites the public into the moving parts of her imagination.

“The shop and the space have provided me with an interesting opportunity to define myself and define how I fit in Helena as an artist and business owner,” said Harter.

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