If there is a heaven for paper clips and drinking straws and dolls missing an arm, it must be inside two towering wooden cases that stand like apartment buildings for ladybugs in artist La Wilson's backyard studio. And each ladybug apartment hosts a ladybug universe: flea-circus-sized Tabasco bottles cluster in one; a hill of yellowed dice from forgotten Yahtzee and Uncle Wiggly games resides in another.
"The Builders Square of leftover, forgotten objects," is how Tom Hinson, curator of contemporary art and photography at the Cleveland Museum of Art, describes Wilson's studio. Enchanted by the work she had submitted to a May Show in the 1980s, he promptly paid a visit to her wooded residence in Hudson. "It had such an immediate draw; there's so much to look at," says Hinson of Wilson's art. "But just as you look at it and think you're beginning to understand everything, there's something that just turns your expectations on end."
Three of Wilson's box-art compositions are on exhibit this month in the museum's Cleveland Collects show. In "Minor Uprising," an antiquated box is crowded with upright bits of hay and pastel paper clips, like an aerial view of an Easter parade about to get ugly. In "Be Prepared," colored pencils and envelopes playfully coexist in a wooden briefcase, though in the ominous shadow of a toy pistol and an approaching plastic bear.
"I sort of collect things that appeal to me," says Wilson, 74, who patrols flea markets to restock her menagerie. "Then I bring them back to my studio, but without any preconceived idea. Essentially, the material gets me."
The grandmother started making art some forty years ago, when she took a painting class at the Akron Art Institute. She soon switched from painting to box sculpture. The late New York artist Joseph Cornell had been making surreal "memory theaters" in boxes since the 1920s, but Wilson wasn't aware of him, and her frequent use of less than romantic materials reflects that.
After entering Wilson's home, unsuspecting guests need a minute before they notice that many of the objects on the walls and tables don't qualify as standard catalog decor. Suddenly, that busy painting between two bookshelves on the far wall casts a three-dimensional gleam. Up close, it's actually a glass case loaded with carnival prizes: colored beads (which turn out to be rosaries); a toy pig; a baby shoe; a Santa head; and, casting everything in a more sinister light, the taxidermic fox head from a lady's fur wrap.
Wilson says she spent a long time arranging and rearranging the crush of objects in the piece to get it right, "because so much of it is hidden." In the real carnival cases, she observes, "you'd never get a goodie. But in this one, you'd always get a goodie."
In the living room, a dime-store cabinet with small drawers beckons. Each drawer houses a treasure, some plainer than others, but all made magical: prongs of plastic forks, dollhouse shingles, and a velvety ripple that turns out to be several crammed rolls of crepe paper. In her kitchen, Impressionistic prints hang on the walls, as does a piece of netting filled with two baseball player figurines, a watch face, a keychain, and what might be ancient cigarette butts. "I used to have a pet crow . . . and I filled it with these things that he had hidden around," Wilson explains. The crow, Jake, came and went from the house through an opening in the porch screen.
Wilson says her art relies on her intuition. "I am involved, but it's sort of like [the material] is leading the way," she says. "Listening and seeing takes me to a place I've never been before. It's like if somebody came to you with a problem. You can't solve the problem until you've listened to what they're saying."
La Wilson's work is on display through January 10 at the Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 East Blvd., 216-421-7340.