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New Appreciation for Old Garbage

Collection: Lake Los Angeles woman's yard is festooned with rusty treasures found in the high desert.


Beverly Swain calls it her "rusty stuff"--a decade's worth of funky finds she picked up while horseback riding in the high desert of the Antelope Valley.

The Lake Los Angeles homemaker finds uses for what others apparently considered junk. She turned an electric fan grate and a dozen odd bolts into wind chimes, for example, and made a bird's nest of an old vacuum cleaner casing.

Scores of her prized tchotchkes are strategically placed among cactus in her frontyard, creating a rust garden of toy trucks, sewing machines, wagon parts and farm tools. Her collection of perhaps thousands of items, in its own way, may illustrate the history of the area during the last century.

"A hundred years ago, this was all alfalfa farms," Swain said. "One of these days I'm going to put a whole tractor together with the parts I've found."

For thousands of years, Native Americans occupied the region, which included trade routes from the coast to the Southwest's deserts and from California's Central Valley to Mexico, said Edra Moore, curator of the Antelope Valley Indian Museum.

To promote farming in the 1920s, the federal government opened up the high desert to homesteaders. To claim their land, they were required to dig a well, plant a crop, occupy the land and build a permanent residence. By the mid-1930s, alfalfa and onion fields blanketed the area, Moore said.

Formerly named Wilsona after President Wilson, the area became Lake Los Angeles in 1967 when a Santa Monica-based developer created a lake as the centerpiece of a planned community. But the developer drained the lake in 1981 when the residents refused to pay for its maintenance.

By the time Swain moved there, Lake Los Angeles was a misnomer, with no lake and the city of Los Angeles nearly 100 miles away.

The community of about 12,000 at the northeast edge of Los Angeles County is also a long way from Swain's roots. Growing up in apartments on Chicago's South Side, Swain, 46, said she had always wanted a horse. On a visit to the Antelope Valley more than 20 years ago, she fell in love with the open space of the high desert, returning to Chicago only to pack up and move.

"This desert has got so much energy, and it's good energy," Swain said on a recent sunny afternoon as she tended her menagerie of four horses, a donkey, chickens, cats and dogs.

Riding either My Jim Dandy or Abby Normal on her desert digs, Swain said she often comes across something that's too big to bring back on horseback, so she returns for it in her truck.

"I had to leave an old wooden wagon out there and I still haven't found it again," she said. "And that was nine years ago."

Under Swain's creative eye, a rusted Radio Flyer wagon becomes a planter, while wire fencing forms a trellis for climbing roses. She's still trying to decide what to do with the old Lovell wringer washer she found "out there somewhere."

Finding uses for junk, an age-old practice worldwide, became recognized as a contemporary art form in the 1920s, after such noted artists as Marcel Duchamp and later Edward Kienholz adopted the concept, said Amy Hood of the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.

Not long ago, the Fowler Museum hosted a major exhibition on junk art, "Recycled, Re-seen: Folk Art from the Global Scrap Heap," which featured about 700 objects from 50 countries made of recycled material.

Swain said she gives away the wind chimes she makes and has no plans to sell the rest of her desert trove, which she has never had appraised.

"I've had a lot of people see something out here and tell me, 'This might be valuable. Why do you leave it out?' In all these years, I've only had one thing stolen that I know of," she said, referring to an old farm tool taken from her garden.

And what is the most common item she finds on her rides in the desert?

"Beer cans," Swain said. "I find a lot of Schlitz. People around here must have really liked Schlitz. Schlitz and Coors."

Moore said people occasionally bring things they find in the desert to the Indian Museum for identification, although the museum's primary focus is on Native American cultures and the area's archeological sites, which are protected by law.

People have been using the desert as a dump for years to avoid paying disposal fees, Moore said, so she's not surprised at anything found out there.

While most of Swain's finds are easily identifiable, others leave her completely stumped, such as a rusted, curved piece of iron that may have been a machine pedal or handle. Or maybe not.

"It's just another rusty thing I found out in the desert," she said. "I don't know why I pick up some things and not others, except that they interest me. Maybe they have a story to tell."

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