WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — Upstairs in Ken Marquis’ art gallery and framing shop, you’ll find a strange, cloistered world populated by a toothy dog chomping on a Frisbee, an enigmatic mermaid reclining in a pool of oil, and some guy named Barack Obama, superfluously announcing that “I AM A PRESIDENT.”
It’s all a bit disorienting. Maybe that is the point, considering these works of art began life as … automobile hubcaps?
The humble hubcap, it turns out, makes an excellent canvas.
Over the past three years, Marquis, 60, has persuaded artists from every state and 52 countries to transform discarded metal and plastic wheel coverings into objects of wonder and whimsy. He has filled two rooms and a hallway with more than 800 works to date, dented old Pontiacs and Plymouths given new life and meaning by fertile minds and talented hands.
Some of the art is purely decorative: enormous roses, intricate sundials, abstracts and landscapes. Other artists make political statements, drop cultural references, or get personal. There are pieces that demand to be touched, rocking and spinning and making noise. And others that make you smile, like the “pasta machine” that extrudes long, fat tubes of ziti.
“Almost every day, some art arrives from somewhere. It’s a real treat to open up a box not knowing exactly what’s in it,” Marquis says with relish.
Beyond the wow factor lies an environmental message.
Reclamation artists have long used junkyards and trash heaps as source material, taking someone else’s garbage and turning it into something beautiful or strange or provocative. The goal of the Landfillart Project, Marquis says, is to get people thinking about the amount of trash they generate — and, perhaps, to reduce it.
“Old rusted hubcaps, or even old plastic ones, eventually have no use. They end up in landfills or in people’s backyards,” he says. “So it made perfect sense to use this as a basis to create art on.”
Vincent Romaniello, 57, of the Philadelphia suburb of Willow Grove, was inspired by images of this year’s Egyptian uprising, especially a photo of stone-throwing young protesters using scrap wood and other objects as shields. His still-unfinished piece envisions the hubcap as camouflaged helmet, perched on top of a pair of battered goggles. An old cellphone and rocks complete the tableau.
“I don’t think it’ll be very difficult for people to understand the meaning behind it,” Romaniello says from the studio behind his house, where he’s brushing on the last bit of paint. “These people are fighting for freedom … for their voices to be heard.”
Pattie Young, 57, of New Plymouth, Idaho, contributed the largest piece in Marquis’s collection. “The Raven” stands more than 7 feet tall, weighs 624 pounds, and uses five hubcaps, a pair of truck wheels, a huge spring, a running light, a fender and other materials scavenged from a salvage yard.
“I got a little carried away,” she says.
For Young, working with reclaimed materials serves a dual purpose. It promotes sustainability, and it feels right artistically. “There’s something about picking up [an object] that’s already been used, the wear on it, the way it has a lot of character,” says Young, who got several other artists to participate in Marquis’ venture.
Not every contributor is a professional artist. About 20 percent of the hubcaps in the collection were supplied by amateurs, from disabled veterans to prison inmates to people with Down syndrome and autism.
Why hubcaps? The idea came to Marquis at an auto show near Allentown, where he had stumbled on a cache of 41 rusted disks. “It was one of those eureka moments,” he recalls. “I saw a hubcap and I thought, ‘I think I can get this repurposed.’”
Marquis scooped them up for $82. A few weeks later, he bought 1,000 hubcaps from a collector in Quakertown. They came from every imaginable make of automobile — Chevrolet, Chrysler, Packard, DeSoto, Mercedes, Rolls Royce and many more, from the 1930s through the 1980s.
Marquis who has been in the art business nearly four decades, called a dozen artist friends and pressed them into service. Then he began prowling the Internet, emailing artists who caught his eye to gauge their interest.
A typical reply, Marquis says, went something like this: “‘You want me to find a hubcap in my own country and pay for that, and you want me to pay for [the materials to make] this piece of great art, and then you want me to ship it to you at my expense, and then you want me to gift it to you? Am I understanding you correctly? OK, yeah, I’m in.”
“I’ve had that conversation hundreds of times,” Marquis says. “Artists get it.”
Still about 150 pieces short of his goal, Marquis hopes to complete the project by early next year. After that comes a coffee-table book and a touring exhibition of 200 representative works.
For now, it can be viewed on Marquis’s website, http://www.landfillart.org, and in person at his Wilkes-Barre gallery.