Slater Barron is into lint. Like human vacuum cleaners, she and her friends scour America's clothes dryers retrieving the stuff.
"People mail it to me," she said. "They bring it to parties. They stop by the house with bags of it."
She, in turn, makes the lint into art. A 56-year-old grandmother in Long Beach, Barron is probably the country's best known lint artist.
"It's accessible because it's pretty," she said of her favorite medium. "People don't have to be afraid of it. I draw them in with the prettiness and novelty, then hit them with the concept."
The concept: that things aren't always as they appear to be. That beneath a seemingly ordinary surface lies something awry. That, like lint, life's fabric is fragile.
Soft Look of Impressionism
It is a theme that runs through most of Barron's work, which has been featured in major art exhibitions and has attracted widespread media attention. Consisting primarily of large, three-dimensional "environmentals" and smaller portraits all made from lint, the work speaks of nostalgia, disintegration and death. "It has the soft look of Impressionism," she said of her art. Yet it lacks that genre's Romanticism--at her work's core is the stuff of which it is made: cobwebs and dust.
Barron has not always been a lint artist. Or any kind of an artist at all, for that matter. The former wife of a career military officer, she spent much of her life raising four children in the four corners of the earth. But in the early 1960s in France, she said, she humored a friend by taking a class that was to change her life. It was a course in oil painting organized by the local Officers' Wives Club. And from then on, she said, her passion was painting.
The artist's interest in lint emerged 10 years later during a period when she was desperately trying to paint in addition to accomplishing her many housewifely chores, which included doing the family wash. "Every time I'd start to paint," she recalled, "the dryer would buzz" signaling the end of its cycle and interrupting work. "So I decided to make a positive thing out of it. I didn't mind going out to change the wash if it would help me make art."
In 1975, after the break-up of her marriage, Barron earned a master of fine arts degree and eventually went to work at Brooks College in Long Beach, where she teaches color theory and design. That same year she sold her first lint piece--a work called "Rosalie's Jeans" that went for $17.76--and since then has sold numerous other pieces, some for as much as $800.
Mural Made of Lint
Her works range from gigantic conceptual environmentals such as a 17-foot by 27-foot by 8-foot room in which figures of her parents sit on a couch watching television, to portraits of various family members including a series of five-foot-high depictions of her elderly mothers' gradual deterioration from Alzheimer's Disease. One of her favorite environmentals, Barron said, was a work entitled "Ladies' Luncheon" in which a group of lint women sit on uncomfortable looking lint stools eating food made of lint.
"It was about my fear that life could turn into a series of ladies' luncheons," she said. "That nothing would be left" but staleness.
Barron's current project is a frog commissioned by a collector in New Jersey. Using a dehydrated frog carcass she found in her yard two years ago as a model, the artist is spending nearly every spare moment carefully fashioning its likeness from the gobs of lint she keeps stored in a stack of boxes lining the studio behind her house. "I want to make him an L.A. frog," she said, "with lots of bright, flashy, New Wave colors."
In fact, she said, California is a good place to be a lint artist because of the brightly colored clothing favored here.
"A woman on my mother's street used to go door-to-door collecting lint for me," she said, alluding to the army of friends, admirers and students who regularly check their dryers for the sake of her art.
After receiving their offerings, Barron painstakingly sorts them by color. Sometimes, she said, she finds traces of the contributors' lives in the fluffy mess. Ground up theater tickets, human or animal hairs, grass cuttings, clothing labels, bits of kleenex or wire or matches--all contribute to the richness and color of the material, she said.
Environmentals are created by pasting the stuff onto existing furniture to form the interior scenery, bed sheets to form the walls or thin wire skeletons to form the figures. Portraits, she said, are created by pasting it onto thin boards in designs patterned after photographs. While the portraits of her own family members are generally based on old photos, she said, those commissioned by others are often based on new photographs which she has taken herself.