Reclaiming My Studio (& Pappaw DeWalt’s Dirt)

Halo-lit by the setting sun, a hulking cumulus cloud looms in the sky like a bulbous atomizer for the Fishkill Creek. The funky summertime fragrance fills my nostrils as I soar down Tioronda Avenue on my bicycle. Along dormant railroad tracks, encroaching development in the form of luxury housing spreads over the abandoned industrial landscape like a modern pestilence. The lambs ear and sumac and occasional dumped sofa are standing their ground for now—and I am rooting for them. (Well, not the sofa.) A whip of wind and gnats and honeysuckle helps to create a miracle: my sixty-four-year-old body is still able to reclaim that giddy feeling of endless summer.

I have been reacquainting myself with my art studio for the last week—a 1920s brick garage that was a large part of the reason I moved upstate from New York City nearly seventeen years ago. It’s been a constant battle with the carpenter ants who have had squatters’ rights since time began. A recent tar-and-patch on the roof’s perimeter has given me the (most likely false) hope that maybe this time I can get the upper hand.

squirrel & tar

So, I am back to assemblage art. I wanted to start small, both in scale and concept. While the setup was initially an homage to my paternal grandfather and the workshop he kept in his basement, this summer I am feeling the spirit of Pappaw DeWalt, my mother’s father. He had built a small, seasonal cabin (known as “the cottage” for some reason, but let’s not envision cobblestones and roses!) out of scavenged Stroehmann’s bread billboards. My dad and uncles would cart the building materials to the island in the Susquehanna from the tiny hamlet of Cly before my memories of summer even began. By the time I was nicknamed “Peapicker” by Pappaw, matching his motorboat, I was happily ensconced in that simple, idyllic setting.

Cottage - me on boat

It was less than a half-hour drive, and yet a world away from our suburban backyard and asphalt playgrounds (where we could easily crack our heads open with one faulty swing on the monkey bars). The cottage was at the very end of the island, which felt like the tip of my entire world, as I spread out on a doll blanket and memorized picture flash cards with all the butterflies and birds, or read the latest Nancy Drew. There was a small dock for the boat and jumping off into the chilly, murky river. Wooden steps led up to a screened-in porch where I loved to sleep on a metal cot, but the rustic interior I barely remember at all. Maybe an enamel-top table, an arm chair—but who wanted to be inside during summer?


Me at the cottage


Nana & Pappaw picnicing.jpg

Pappaw and Nana DeWalt had traveled—camped!—across some of the United States, and he always brought back a souvenir for me. A fossil, some fool’s gold, and from one trip in 1957, samples of dirt. Sixty years later they are lined up in my studio, their masking tape labels still legible: Wyoming, Cedar Rapids Iowa, Hinkley [sic] Illinois, and “50 MI west of Omaha Lincoln NEB.” To christen the rebirth of my creative workspace, I decided to give them a little more of a presentation, using materials that evoked feelings of the cabin on the river, and of a time when feeling dirt underfoot and memorizing Latin names for butterflies was really all a girl needed to pass a long, summer’s day.

Dirt on shelves

3 removed and mounted, 4 to go

Samples in progress

experimenting with backgrounds to mount the dirt samples

Linoleum in driveway

a nice sheet of aging linoleum that evokes the cottage, warming up in the driveway

Linoleum on masonite

cut down to the size of pre-cut masonite (done years ago by Pappaw Watts . . .for what?)

Dirt__Lincoln Nebraska

One sample assemblage ready


This one goes to Pappaw DeWalt’s great-grandson, Mike, and his wife Charlotte, who live in Wyoming. Passing the dirt!

Bag Lady

They’ve been mounting in stacks for nearly a decade now. What? you might ask. I mean, it could be anything, really, if you know me. I do reuse them, but now I am more prone to saving them. Some are like old friends. First thing I do on a Sunday is take a peek to see if Molejon greets me after I leave Beacon Bagel. I am referring to, if you haven’t guessed already, the brown paper bag. More specifically, a DURO bag–that stalwart container for home-packed lunches, ever since 1953.

I’ve always flipped the bag over to see the names stamped on the bottom, along with a date. This would be the branding of the inspection process. I imagine a person sitting in a factory, day after day, week after week–a life at an assembly line–making sure the bag is sealed to perfection. The glued seam at that most vulnerable spot is connected forever to Molejon, or Wigberto Serpa, or Lizzie Nina, or a dozen or so others that I’ve collected like other women might collect Kate Spades.

The idea of designer bags vs. this humble paper bag has intrigued me to the point where I now have started deconstructing them to isolate the inspector’s name and date, then reassembling them into a flat collage (glued and stitched) using other discards of materials–wrapping paper, packaging, ribbon–that I have saved from gifts given to me. So many times I have been given a handbag as a present, and now I am assembling an essence of a woman’s bag, bringing these names to the forefront to be noticed.

I have a fantasy of actually visiting a factory–in a town that conjures up Norma Rae (in Walton, Kentucky, or Yulee, Florida, or Progreso, Texas, or Jackson, Tennessee). I would love to meet the people that in my small way I am acknowledging. I notice that there is a Duro factory pretty close by–Elizabeth, New Jersey. Not as exotic, perhaps, to this native north-easterner. Besides, I am not sure that my name would pass a criminal background check for bag abduction. That was the scene of the crime when I *accidentally* pilfered an Ikea bag.

I’m making up for it now, I’d like to think.

Dolores Cruz

Dolores Cruz – Oct 04 07

Mili Lara

Mili Lara – Jul 08 10

Duro - Flora Alegria - lo-rez

Flora Alegria – Jan 30 07

all images copyright sharon watts 2013

I almost forgot~ earlier this year I discovered a kindred spirit in Springbyker:

Assemblage Art in Beacon and on Beguile

It’s cold outside! The art studio (former garage) has no heat, but before I closed the door on it until springtime I had some pieces to finish. A group show was in the wings, and so I had to kick these babies out of the nest. (Did I mention I am part magpie?) Here is some of the “before”:




And the final results (plus 8 more), which are in a group show entitled Family, at the Mad Dooley Gallery here in Beacon. Featured in the Po-Jo (Poughkeepsie Journal)’s “What Inspires Me” column.



And over in Paris, some slightly older pieces from my Illumination series are currently featured on the e-zine Beguile.




So, on the shortest month of the year, a little “show-and-tell” between the shivers!

Mary Janes in Palo Alto

This gallery contains 6 photos.

This year I promised myself I would start to enter more juried exhibitions (the ones that had an entry fee under $25) with my assemblage art. I was disillusioned by the experience of entering a mega-exhibit (read all about it here) … Continue reading

Peg O’ My Heart

This gallery contains 11 photos.

My grandfather on my father’s side, “Pappaw” Watts, was a foreman at PP&L (Pennsylvania Power and Light) and Renaissance man: a self-taught musician, poet, photographer, and beekeeper. He also was a Depression-era poster boy for saving things that he might … Continue reading

Present Absence

This gallery contains 1 photo.

A recent work has me exploring familiar themes: family, memory, loss, love, connectedness, fragility, strength. A found trinket (the “W” charm) strung on a wire, forms a new type of jewelry/embellishment. My grandmother holds her first child, my father, who … Continue reading