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Shari Keith sees art in discards, counts bulk trash days as holidays, and calls herself "The Junk Lady."

She turns other people's garbage into or home decor with metal-bending tools and subtle arranging. Some of the creations stay in her Ahwatukee Foothills home; others are in collections or galleries like the Vision Gallery in downtown Chandler. Next month Keith, 54, will spearhead Chandler's latest public-art project - a table made with public participation, featuring 3-inch squares. She is a roster artist for the Arizona Commission on the Arts.

 


The consummate scavenger "shops" for supplies by hopping on a bicycle to scout her neighborhood before bulk trash pickups, returning with her van for the good stuff. She retrieves run-over roadside litter and salvages discards left by illegal desert dumpers. Junkyards, thrift stores and yard sales are regular haunts.

When her son's braces came off, Keith snagged the orthodontic appliance and incorporated it into an elaborate necklace. "You pay so much for your kid's braces, you might as well get a piece of jewelry out of it," she said.

Several of her junk-inspired pieces of jewelry are on display and sale at the Vision Gallery with $40 to $80 price tags. One is a necklace made from "road metal," tape measure fragments, old copper chain and beads.

"I believe that it is artistically exciting, environmentally beneficial and personally rewarding to use things that others overlook or throw away," she said. "And I don't buy new clothes."

The colorful skirt she was wearing recently was made from the top of a pair of jeans trimmed with silk neckties sewn together. A pair of women's gloves was attached to the back pockets.

"I am especially intrigued by textures that have been created by the passage of time: patina, rust, and even missing parts. With age comes character." Her living-room coffee table is an old cabinet door decorated with sewing-pattern pieces on top of an old suitcase and stacks of books.

Bar stools were made from old tractor seats, and a broken waffle iron framed with street sweeper blades decorates a wall.

The giant sculpture in her stairway is rusted mattress springs retrieved from a desert dumping site. A bullet-ridden motorcycle is a yard ornament. "When plants die, I put rusted found stuff in their place . . . it's my junk sculpture garden. Rose bouquets brought to her by her husband, Tom, were too precious to throw away. Now they hang in tied clusters, evenly spaced between curtains on drapery rods.

No, the Keiths' 3,100-square foot house doesn't conjure up an episode of "Hoarders." It's more like a gallery.

"I'm very organized," she said. "Supplies," mostly the results of her scavenging, are kept in one room until the artist visualizes their transformation. When the number of completed works gets too large for her space, Keith said she trades with other artists.

A former teacher with a bachelor's degree in art and master's in education, Keith conducts junk-to-art workshops for children and adults and is hosting one at Chandler Center for the Arts later this month. She said transforming trash teaches youngsters that you don't have to have a lot of money to buy art supplies and that everything - and everyone - has value.

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