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Junk + Art + Retail

Or, adventures in Nancy Tobin's installed worlds



The other day I drove by a telephone pole that had about a dozen signs advertising yard sales stapled on it -- and that was just one pole. These days, when you go to take your cast-offs to the thrift store, they often have a sign out saying they are not accepting drop-off donations; you have to schedule a time when you can give away your stuff. Websites like Craigslist and Freecycle are enormously popular as ways to get rid of your stuff and get it into the hands of somebody else, who might put it up on eBay, or get rid of it themselves at their next yard sale.

For the past 50 years we've been consuming things at an unbelievable rate, and now we're in the process of shuffling all of that stuff around. We're drowning in stuff, we hate to throw it away and sometimes can't give it away, and we're still buying new stuff all the time.

There are various responses to this weird state of being, from the vagabond who shuns the weight of personal possessions to the shop-a-holic who can't get enough. Nancy Tobin leans more to the shopper's end of this continuum, but with a creative twist.

Nancy is a junk collector/installation artist/retail store owner. She owns the Vintage Avenger -- you know, that funky little clothing shop in the Pythian Castle. The store itself is an installation piece in a sense. It's her own little corner of the world that she can decorate as she sees fit, and it's crowded with clothes, accessories, wedding dresses on hoops and hung upside down, wigs and fish-net stockings.

When another retail space became available around the corner from V.A., she didn't take it just so she could have more space to play with -- she was seeing a real demand for the kind of shoes she's going to stock there. But she has been using the opportunity to build some larger installations for display, and will continue to have her artwork in the store. Shoe Shangri-La is open for business and you can see Nancy's latest creation, Whisk Until Dawn, there through the end of October.

A retail space is a perfect opportunity for an installation artist. If Nancy had unlimited resources, she'd happily create her own theme park in which she could take you entirely out of your world and bring you into hers. That's not an option -- not yet, but who knows what the future will bring? -- but the retail space allows her to create a small version of her amusement park world and have it bring in some income as well.

While painters stimulate the visual senses, installation artists long to tickle all of your senses and get you to experience the world in a way you've never imagined. In Shoe Shangri-La, Nancy transports you into another reality. She explains, "I want [the viewers/shoppers] to completely leave wherever they came in. I'm creating a space where their sense of bearing and what they're familiar with are gone."

Whisk Until Dawnis a cyclone of whirling papers (pages from the phone book) that sits comfortably amidst all of the thrift-store décor. The main part of the cyclone is attached to a small motor, and when it's plugged in it spins around. Other parts of the cyclone hang from a web suspended from the ceiling. It's reminiscent of that scene from the movie Brazil in which the guy is enveloped by swirling bits of litter on the street and when the litter finally all blows away, he's gone. That's what I wonder about: When all of this junk we're creating is gone, will we still be here?

You'll find Shoe Shangri-La around the corner from the Vintage Avenger in the Pythian Castle at 1101 H St. in Arcata. Both places are worth a wander, even if you're not shopping. Tobin's current installation will be up through October and who knows what she'll do next.


Another notable show is Fellow Travelers, at the new Arcata Photo Studios in the Jacoby Storehouse. Humboldt Pride and Queer Humboldt are hosting a traveling exhibit of black and white photos by Los Angeles-based writer, journalist, activist and photographer Mark Thompson. The exhibit is touring the country with the help of the White Crane Institute (

These moving photographs and the accompanying text tell the history of the Gay movement through the eyes of the artist. In a short video about the show, Bo Young of White Crane sums up the importance of this nicely: "The most important thing that's taken from Gay people is our history, and if you don't have your history then they can tell you anything about yourself and you'll believe it."

Although the show is primarily about Gay pride and history, there's something that all of us can take from it. Ultimately, we're all a minority of one, and we each have the right and the responsibility to communicate our experience of the world. We can all learn something about the history of the Gay movement at the show and be inspired to know our own history as well. This show is up through September.


Send your art news (six weeks in advance) to or write in care of the Journal at 145 South G Street, Suite A, Arcata, Calif., 95521.


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