Nancy J. Rodwan‘s new book, Purged: The Art of Metamorphosis, explores Detroiters’ relationship with their cast-off possessions. Over the course of several years, Rodwan received unwanted items donated by friends and loved ones. She transformed them into works of art that are often completely unrecognizable from their original life. Every day objects like clothing, kitchen utensils, electronics, books, toys, and car parts became detailed paintings, sculptures, fiber art, assemblages, and collages. The book includes photos of the donated items next to the artworks they became, as well their back stories and Rodwan’s thoughts and inspirations on each piece.
1. Tell us all about your creative art project, how you started, how it became a gallery exhibition, and then a book.
My dear friend Nancy Mills, who lives in DC, posted on social media that she was going to follow a 30-day decluttering plan. Basically, you get rid of one item the first day, two items on the second day and so on. I don’t get to see Nancy often so I asked her to send me one of the items she was purging from her life and said I would then transform it into art. I felt it was an opportunity to feel closer to my friend. When I told my husband about it, he said I should take if further and ask more people for purged items and create an exhibit. That is what I did. I asked over fifty people to give me something of no value that they have been meaning to get rid of but for some reason have not. The response was overwhelming.
Because every transformed object had a story behind it I wanted to chronicle the exhibit by publishing a companion book. The book is much more than a catalogue of the show. It features an introduction by the poet Terry Blackhawk, my artist’s statement, original poems on the theme of metamorphosis by Detroit poets Maia Asshaq, Terry Blackhawk, Andrea Daniels, and Bill Harris. The book also contains before photos of the objects, the story behind the pieces and a photo of the finished art.
2. Your art work is so varied, imaginative, and executed with such attention to detail. What inspires you?
Sometimes it is the materials I am working with that guide the piece, like with the Mr. Coffee coffee maker contributed by Detroit artist Carole Harris. Once I had the thing completely dismantled the parts inspired the two sculptures I created. Other times it was the person who contributed the item, like with the fiber piece Divided that I made from the dress donated by Detroit community leader and activist Sarah James. My art is also very heavily influenced by music and literature. You will find pieces in the book inspired by Sun Ra, String Noise, Walt Whitman and Ovid.
This project – dismantling the purged items, transforming them into art, photographing the before and after pieces and writing the book – took me three years and I still have eleven purged objects to transform and people are still giving me stuff! There will be a Purged Redux in the future.
3. Tell us the story behind one or two of your favorite pieces, and why are they meaningful to you?
One of my favorite pieces is titled The Dinner Party. Four women who I greatly admire all gave me silver or silver-plated items. Dawn D’Arcy gave me a garlic press, Stacey Feldman a serving spoon and fork, Trish Harris a sugar bowl and creamer, and Rachel Lutz a cup and card holder. When I looked at these items together all I could think of was how wonderful it would be to have them all together around my dining room table. Only two of these women know each other. I am certain that if I could host this dinner party that the conversation would be lively and laughter plentiful. It was also fun to make. My friend Brent Bacher let me use his hydraulic press to crush the pieces. It was the first time I have used one and it really was a blast.
My friend Bob Follek and I were once in a book club together. Bob revealed at a meeting that he likes to revisit Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice often and tries to reread it every few years. When Bob donated his Shenanigan’s t-shirt, I skimmed through the book for inspiration. A line from the novel spoken by Mr. Darcy struck me and became the title of the piece of art I made from his shirt. “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony, in a moment.” While I do not at all agree with Mr. Darcy, I do hold close the first part of the sentence: “A lady’s imagination is very rapid.” It brings to mind all of the wonderfully talented women in my life, their sharp wit, engaging minds, and creative output. There is a lot of movement in the art. Some have compared it an octopus or starfish-like spiral.
4. Who are some of your “donors”? How do the people who gave you their purged items react to their transformation into works of art?
Most of the fifty some people who contributed to the project are Detroiters. Other than the few people I have already mentioned contributors include Amanda Brewington, Nichole Christian, Anna Clark, Olayami Dabls, Ann Delisi, Treena Flannery Erikson, Stephen Henderson, Najma Ma’at, Nadir Omowale, Gary Schwartz, Lindy Marie Shewbridge, Mandisa Smith, just to name a few. I hope I have not offended anyone not mentioned.
A lot of people reacted with something like, “Wow!” In the majority of the pieces I made the original object is no longer identifiable. When looking at Uprising people do not realize that it was made from parts of an IBM Selectric typewriter that was given to me by journalist Stephen Henderson.
5. As a Detroiter, how does the city itself and its people relate to your work?
Detroiters are the most resilient and resourceful people you will meet. We have an uncanny ability to take what is at hand and make it work, which is at the heart of Purged. The arts community in Detroit is strong and incredibly supportive. We lift each other up.
Bonus Question: If you could pick through anyone’s trash for discarded treasures, who would you choose?
I love this question! Two people come to mind. They both have had a strong influence on my work, but I have a feeling that neither one of them purges. I believe they are hoarders. Patti Smith and Laurie Anderson. I feel like they’re both kindred spirits of sorts; they both work in multiple areas – music, writing, photography, performance and so on – in ways that resonate with me. (And Patti Smith, of course, lived in the area for a while.)
I am participating in a few events where I will be discussing the project and where the book will be available:
- Wednesday, June 20: 6:00 – 7:30 pm: “Harris, Hodges, & Rodwan: An Evening of Detroit Art, Architecture & Literature” at Pages Bookshop at 19560 Grand River Ave, Detroit, Michigan 48223
- Tuesday, June 26: 6:00 – 7:45 pm: “New Books Poets & Pies” at The Detroit Public Library – Main Branch at 5201 Woodward Ave, Detroit, Michigan 48202
- Saturday & Sunday, October 13 & 14, “2018 Detroit Art Book Fair” at Trinosophes, at1464 Gratiot Ave, Detroit, Michigan 48207
Purged: The Art of Metamorphosis can be purchased at Book Beat in Oak Park, Detroit Artists Market, Eric’s I’ve Been Framed, MOCAD, and Pages Bookshop in Detroit. Or you can order here.