The accidental artists: Aspen parade float celebrates little-noticed medium
July 4, 2009
ASPEN – On his visit to Aspen last winter, Harrell Fletcher, an artist from Portland, Ore., spent a good chunk of his time in the Pitkin County Library. Looking past the biographies of painters, beyond the coffee-table books filled with reproductions of art, the 41-year-old found himself drawn to the bulletin board – home to numerous creations made not as art, but for more practical purposes.
“I like the way people draw things when they weren’t trying to make art,” said Fletcher. “What I would call vernacular creative activities, that people don’t think of as art, but functions in that way. Like a hand-drawn map, or a flier used to generate business.”
Fletcher notes that there is more than mindless doodling behind such efforts; they are not quite as ordinary as hot dogs, lemonade, and red, white and blue streamers wrapped around bicycle spokes.
“They used aesthetics in their design,” he said. “It’s almost the same thing that a poet is doing. They had to come up with a way to use the language. You want to effectively convey a message. It represents you.”
Fletcher is using one of Aspen’s biggest stages – Saturday’s Fourth of July parade – to celebrate this little-noticed corner of the visual environment. His float, designed for the Aspen Art Museum, features four enormous fliers that were originally intended simply to promote local businesses – not to be considered for their visual features. The fliers are for an alfalfa farm, masseuse services, a garden-builder and a hula-hooper.
Part of the thinking behind the project is that Fletcher sees such idiosyncratic visual creations as a dying language. Mapquest is killing off the hand-scrawled map; paper fliers used to sell an old futon are being replaced by standardized ads on Craig’s List. Fletcher sees his work as kin to that of the ethnomusicologists who went to the American South to record blues musicians in the early days of sound recording technology.
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“In a weird way, I see these as folk art, folk enterprises, that are getting lost,” said Fletcher, whose previous projects include collecting photos out of the wallets of visitors to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and blowing up 10 of the images – a lot of them kids and pets – and exhibiting them at the museum. “Capturing these, I’m making a little note: These are interesting things that are disappearing.”
The float attempts to recapture the fading art of handmade items on another level. The fliers – a form of communication typically Xeroxed – will be hand-painted from a projection onto canvas.
The float reveals other interests as well. On his previous visit here, Fletcher became aware of the socioeconomic dynamic that has workers in certain professions pushed to live well outside of Aspen. But he also found entrepreneurs trying to make it in Aspen. So those fliers being paraded through Aspen are not only interesting from a visual standpoint – they might also drum up business.
“I was using this platform to let other people have a voice,” said Fletcher, a professor at Portland State University. “Especially as the recession became a bigger factor, I liked the idea of helping out these small businesses.”
Parade watchers are as likely to notice the mode of transportation as the oversized fliers. Fletcher’s contraption is mounted on four utility bicycles, so that the float will release no exhaust. “I wanted something human-powered,” said Fletcher, who typically rides his own bike to work, and has noticed in Portland the increasing use of utility bikes, that can be used to haul things. The bikes will be driven by the business owners whose fliers are being displayed, or a representative of the business.
And Fletcher didn’t want to see his float simply ride off into the sunset, never to be heard from again. So he arranged for the bikes to be given to the businessmen.
“So they continue to be used in the community, and maybe can help these people’s businesses,” he said.