‘Gypsy’ artists recycle own careers
It almost sounds like a movie script: Two successful graphic artists working in the advertising industry, after twenty-five years in the ‘Big City’, move out to the country and reinvent themselves as ‘recycling’ artists, promoting (albeit inadvertently) the notion
of the three R’s, reduce, reuse and recycle, instead of a culture of consumerism. That would be the tale of Lizabeth Laroche and Brigitte Mittelhammer, two friends who lived and worked in Montreal before taking that leap of faith and moving to ‘greener’ pastures.
“I came out here first, about five years ago. My boyfriend had just bought a property on the Boynton Road. My mother was born in the Townships and we visited it often when I was a kid, but I had never been to this area,” said Ms. Mittelhammer who grew up in Longueuil. After visiting Brigitte in her new home, it wasn’t long after that Lizabeth decided to look for a property in the area. “I grew up in St. Jeansur-Richelieu, so we often visited the Townships. But I’d never been to this area either. It’s very special, beautiful here; like an undiscovered jewel,” explained Ms. Laroche in an interview in her studio in Ogden.
Surprisingly, it doesn’t seem as if the decision to leave their lucrative careers back in Montreal for the rural life of the Townships was difficult for either of them to make. “It wasn’t hard to move here. I’d always dreamed of living in the country, with horses. I left advertising at the right time because I had no more passion. My job was to develop campaigns, inspire artists and clients. It took a lot out of me but it gave a lot back to me, too. But then it started to take more and give less. My friends said ‘You’ll be back’, but they’re from Montreal, they don’t know what it’s like here. I love the quiet and the beauty, and the people,” said Brigitte.
Lizabeth suffered a few burn-outs before deciding to shift gears. “I loved working in graphic design and I had always wanted, since I was about fifteen, to work in advertising. When I was young I’d spend quality time with my dad watching those great old commercials. He loved good advertising!” commented Lizabeth. “So after twenty-five years, I felt a move would do it. But you have to be able to face your fears; when you leave a career it’s like losing your identity. I tried so many different jobs; it brings you to a state of humility. But what was great is that I realized that I had resources.”
The conversion from advertising to recycling seemed to take a natural course. “Living here helped us to be observers and look at ourselves. We gave ourselves the time and space to do this. There’s a price to everything; we must assume our choices,” explained Ms. Mittelhammer. “We came from a very consumer background, even an absurdity on my end of over-consumption. I’m not a militant (environmentally) but I think it’s really sad that we’ve reduced our citizens to consumers. It saddens me that our human existence has come down to that,” commented Ms. Laroche. “Yes, society has a lot of respect for high consumers,” added Brigitte.
The two artists began looking at garbage, scrap material and just plain junk quite differently. “We began seeing everything as a medium or as a canvas,” said Brigitte. Now wellentrenched in the project that the two dubbed “Gypsy Art”, Lizabeth’s studio had many examples, from whimsical wall hangings of figurines magically brought to life with buttons and bottle-caps, colourful sculptures, even a Britishthemed table lamp made with an old rotary telephone and cleverly called “London Calling”.
What adds even more meaning to the pieces that go out to galleries and exhibitions is that each piece comes with its own biography. “What I love the most is the story behind the piece. Each one comes with a list of the materials and where they all came from. The objects come together and the people connected to all those objects come together in the piece; people relate to the stories,” said Brigitte. “Sometimes people are very touched by the pieces, I think because so much love and joy goes into the creation process,” added Lizabeth.
“Contrary to what you learn in school, we believe that everyone is an artist. Especially with this kind of art, made from recycled scrap, but they can’t be afraid of breaking the rules, letting themselves go. There is so much anguish, anxiety and fear that can go into traditional art like painting, and the canvas and paints are very expensive. But this recycled art everyone can do. There is no fear and no perfection in Gypsy Art. I had to unlearn to draw and paint to do this,” said Ms. Laroche. “It’s about the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-Sabi: seeing the beauty in imperfection,” added Brigitte.
The process of creating recycled art is quite adventurous. “It differs from traditional art in that it doesn’t come from the brain; there’s little rationale or planning. You click with an object, then pieces start to come together,” said Lizabeth. “Personally, I never know what I’m going to do. It has a life of its own. The piece could take a couple of hours or a few weeks to finish,” said Ms. Mittelhammer.
The search for good scrap is also part of the adventure. “We look in attics, back alleys, garage sales, at the side of the road. The great time of the year for finding objects is starting now,” said Brigitte enthusiastically. “It’s hunting time!” added Ms. Laroche.
These two ‘Gypsy artists’ have also worked on some local group art projects with great results, one of which is displayed prominently in the Rock Island sector of Stanstead. “We strongly believe that everyone is creative and we saw that with the mural that the kids made in Stanstead. Just open the space to be creative and let’s go. They lose the mental programming and follow their joy, their heart.” The artists also worked with the members of the After the Rainbow comes the Sun group at the CAB RH Rediker to make a mural of recycled objects. “Some of the members didn’t want to try it at first, but by the end they were all flourishing, even complimenting each other’s work.”
“Our priority now is making our new website and creating new pieces.” Lizabeth and Brigitte are also hoping to work with more groups, including groups of children or people with special needs, to create murals, and they are planning to begin holding recycled art workshops for individuals. “We’re hoping for people who don’t have a clue about art!” For information about the workshops, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 819 876 5015 or 514 918 2593 for any other information. Many of their pieces are now on display in Knowlton at A la Carte, Arts et Antiquites.
When asked if they had an objective to their Gypsy Art project, Brigitte answered first: “For once in my life I have no objective, or, maybe to be inspired in the present moment. Everything happens from there.” Lizabeth continued: “We made a vow when we started this that if it didn’t bring us joy in the present moment, we would stop. But if we’re happy and joyful, and the work comes from the heart, it will go well.”
Lizabeth Laroche (left) and Brigitte Mittelhammer are surrounded by art made from junk and found objects in Lizabeth’s studio, in Ogden.
Lizabeth Laroche (left) and Brigitte Mittelhammer and a ‘recycled’ ballerina, an example of their ‘Gypsy’ art.
“Dog Divine” was made with an old Toc board, dominoes, a door handle found in a Beebe overall factory, and many other pieces of junk or interesting artefacts, depending how you look at it!