‘Tin is the New Black’: Oh, the Stories Discarded Objects Can Tell

“Tin is the New Black,” an exhibition featuring professional artists working in repurposed printed lithographed metal, is on display at Oglebay Institute’s Stifel Fine Arts Center in Wheeling through June 22.

Unique and colorful, the exhibit explores the imaginative stories that discarded objects can tell. The show features twelve artists from eight states who transform used metal from its original purpose and form — a container, sign, toy or can — into vibrant, and often nostalgic, works of art.

Each artist has a distinct style, is inspired in different ways and has an interesting story of becoming attracted to, or, in some cases, “obsessed with,” using repurposed metal as an artistic medium. But all of the artists find joy in taking items that have been thrown away and giving them new life.

“I often find myself wondering about the person who made these materials, who used them, who held them. I like to think that a part or energy of that person is still contained in these things, and now it’s transferred into the artwork. I’m giving that discarded piece of metal, or that old object, a new life, a different life,” said award-winning, Wheeling-based artist Robert Villamagna.

Wheeling artist Robert Villamagna with his piece “A Clean Mill.”

Villamagna served as guest curator for the show and is also a featured artist. His work has been exhibited at numerous galleries. Five of his works are in the State of West Virginia Permanent Collection. In 2016 he was named West Virginia Artist of the Year. Villamagna recently retired from West Liberty University, where he was an assistant professor of art. He currently remains director of the University’s Nutting Gallery.

Other featured artists include: Alea Bone of Portland, Ore.; Rand Carlson of Tucson, Ariz.; Jenny Fillius of Seattle, Wash.; Kim Fox of Pittsburgh, Pa.; Charlotte Mansur of Bradenton, Fla.; Leslie Stuart Matthews of Villanova, Pa.; Nia Michaels of Seattle; Emily Pratt of Portland, Ore.; Loran Scruggs of Port Townsend, Wash.; Dave Yoas of El Sobrante, Calif.; and Kim Young of Richmond, Va.

Many of the artists featured in “Tin is the New Black” were in attendance at the exhibit opening earlier this month at the Stifel Fine Arts Center. From left are: Wheeling artist Robert Villamagna; Pittsburgh artist Kim Fox; Leslie Stuart Matthews of Villanova, Pa.; David Yoas of El Sobrante, Calif.; Charlotte Mansur of Bradenton, Fla; and Jenny Fillius of Seattle, Wash.

Tin artists get their materials from flea markets, dumpsters, second-hand stores and the like. Their tools aren’t brushes and pallets. They use tinsnips, hammers and nails. They cut, weld, pound and even sew metal.  Yes, artist Leslie Stuart Matthews actually sews the metal in her pieces.

“After several years of working with repurposed tin, I am now focused on sewing printed cans. Being able to quilt with metal is very satisfying. I have recently started to add bits of photographs and fabric. I am excited to see where this takes me,” she said.

With a style and technique different than Matthews, artist Kim Fox specializes in creating patchwork tin quilts. After moving back from Florida to her native Western Pennsylvania, Fox reclaimed her roots and started to explore the regional arts and crafts with a more rural bent. She began working with vintage tins and salvaged wood and “patchworking” the tin in a way that felt like quilting. Currently, she is researching traditional quilting and the stories behind the patterns.

Pittsburgh artist Kim Fox with her piece “Honeycomb.”

What attracts the artists to tin as a medium? Some love the intricate patterns and bright colors. Others love the rust, dents and scratches. Sometimes pictures and words inspire an idea for a piece.

“I am very passionate about working with these materials, especially those items that show use, wear and rust. I love stuff with character,” Villamagna said.

Loran Scruggs finds the color and glints of shine on printed tin and bottle caps “joyous.” “Labels and advertising iconography are often brightly colored with simple words and images very much like children’s educational toys,” he said. “My work references childhood, as that was a time of the most play. Play is a time of being in the moment, no past or future worries, a time of joy.”

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The themes found in the art are as diverse as the artists themselves.

Narratives found in Villamagna’s work come from his own life experiences, as well as stories that the materials themselves may suggest. “Some of these visual narratives are true, some exaggerated, some silly and others may be total fantasy. Most of my works are my response to the world around me, which may include the environment, the political climate, tolerance or our treatment of our fellow man. These ‘response works’ are an outlet for me, and prevent me from throwing bricks at the television screen.”

Alea Bone strives to “create an edgy and irreverent version of a new American folk art.” Her mixed-media assemblages, made primarily from bottle caps and beer cans, “blur the lines between the sacred and the profane, striking a balance somewhere between the raw intuitive and fine art.”

Skull 1 by Alea Bone

An editorial art director and cartoonist for 30 years, Rand Carlson said his tin collage work is a “recycled material extension” of his work in political cartooning and landscape painting.

Inspiration is only limited by the artists’ imaginations.

“Anything can trigger an idea — an overheard expression, a story, something I see on the street or the tin itself, literally anything,” said Jenny Fillius.

Jenny Fillius of Seattle with her piece “Why Can’t We Have Nice Things.”

Charlotte Mansur was introduced to repurposed tinwork in 2013 when she took a workshop with Villamagna.  She then began using her background in found objects and collage to develop her own approach to “painting” with tin.  “I work as if the small tin pieces were brush strokes of color. The small pieces of tin are my pallet,” she said.

Artist Dave Yoas is inspired by hand-stamped tin nicho boxes, popular in Mexican folk art. A nicho box is a three-dimensional display box, similar to a shadow box. They are used as a type of portable shrine to important figures such as saints and loved ones and provide a stage-like setting for a significant image.

Dr. Carneys Far East Sideshow by Dave Yaos

While many of the pieces in the exhibit are bright, cheerful and often humorous, others evoke melancholy. For example, Nia Michaels uses somber Civil War-era tintype photos in her work.

“By combining appropriated commercial imagery from the past into something new and by casting strangers, long dead, into new identities, I am drawn to the seemingly endless possibilities and stories that I can coax from these small pieces of metal,” she said.

Soliloquy #3 by Nia Michaels

“Tin is the New Black” brings a sense of nostalgia to the viewer. From old advertising signs to metal toys from childhood to product containers, cans and bottle caps, the deconstructed objects used to create the artwork are a reflection of our past. It will be on display through June 22 and can be viewed free of charge from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Evening hours are dependent on classes and special events.

This exhibit is part of Oglebay Institute’s changing art exhibition season, which is sponsored by United Bank, and supports the Institute’s mission to bring prestigious artwork from around the nation into our community as well as showcase work from outstanding local artists.

For more information, visit OIonline.com or call the Stifel Fine Arts Center at 304-242-7700.

Housed in the historic Edemar Mansion, the Stifel Fine Arts Center is a treasure trove for artistic expression and personal fulfillment. A public arts center with galleries, classrooms and performance space, the Stifel Center serves as a gathering place for artists, emerging artists, art lovers, students, educators and families — connecting and engaging the community in creative pursuits.