A common cliché that is often used says, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Long Beach artist Slater Barron, an oil and watercolor painter, sculptor and photographer, took a similar approach to the quote, but with lint.
When Barron used the garage as her art studio, the buzzer of the dryer constantly disturbed her work. “I have this idea where anything that works against you, you need to turn it around and have it work for you,” she said. Barron began using the dryer’s lint to produce portraits, sculptures and installations. “It made it less distracting because the dryer was helping. It was producing something good,” she added.
Barron became interested in art while living in France. “I was a military wife,” she said. On the military base, she was offered the opportunity to take an oil-painting class. “They needed enough women to fill the class, or they wouldn’t have [it],” she explained. “But after a couple weeks, I was hooked. The best place to be when learning about art is in France.”
Oil paint and lint have become Barron’s two favorite mediums. To many, she is referred to as “The Lint Lady.” “My friends are very good about saving lint for me, especially if they get some really beautiful lint,” she said. “So, people send me lint in the mail. They bring it to parties. They drop it off at my front door sometimes. So, I have big boxes full of lint.”
However, there is an important technique in how to preserve the lint. “The lint needs to be saved flat,” she explained. “Somebody just recently contacted me that had a huge bag full of lint, but it’s all crumpled up. I can’t work with that because it’s too hard to separate. It sticks to itself. So, saving all the lint flat, my lint collectors know that, and it’s usually between sheets of paper.”
Lint doesn’t require many tools other than a pair of scissors. However, portraits require glue to spray onto the surface before the lint is applied. “And sometimes I have to use a crystal-clear fixative to put more lint on top of that because, if I’m doing a portrait, I have to peel the lint so it’s gossamer,” Barron said. “So, as I’m doing the flesh tones, I would layer it as [I do with] oil painting.”
In creating characters out of lint, like Barron did of her mother and father in a few pieces, she uses wires to shape the figures of the people. “I used a very thin wire armature,” she explained. “And then, I took the lint in armfuls and wrapped it around the wires to form figures.”
Barron’s subjects in her art are often very deep. However, there are a number of pieces that have less seriousness to them. “I think life is about the balance of the serious but also the very humorous,” she noted.
A few pieces Barron’s made with lint are food plates such as sushi. “I make food out of lint, and there’s hair and Kleenex and yucky stuff in it. And so, it’s almost the opposite of what looks enticing,” she said. “When you really look at it, it’s not.”
One topic to which Barron has dedicated some of her pieces is child abuse. “I did child welfare work when I lived in New Jersey,” she said. “I was a social worker, and so, that part of my early career in life just pops up in my work.”
Some of these pieces take the form of bears. “My feeling is that when there is some sort of tragedy, the fireman or policeman sometimes– if there is children involved– will bring a stuffed teddy bear to help the kids relax,” she explained. “But you can’t hug the bears that I make because they are all about child abuse. The bears are covered in newspaper articles about child abuse, and then it is also dressed in what looks like overalls or something depicted by rose thorns from my garden.”
Another topic that Barron has frequently focused on is Alzheimer’s disease. “When you photograph lint, it [has] sort of blurred edges,” she said. “I always think about the lint very often as memory– when I’m doing portraits or I’m doing still-life kinds of things with it.”
In 1988, when Barron was showing a series focused on Alzheimer’s disease, she met Huell Howser, the television host of the PBS show California’s Gold who passed away on Jan. 7. “He was just so tickled that it was lint,” she said. “And I recognized that this is a really wonderful person, and everybody who knew him really liked him. He was so friendly to everybody.”
When first asked about Howser, Barron said, “He’s sort of my hero.” As time passed, they remained in touch. “He calls me up,” she said. “He used to call me up every now and then, and I would save the messages of his voice on my answering machine.”
In addition to the series that Barron made focused on Alzheimer’s disease, she wrote a book in 2007 titled Remembering the Forgetting. It’s about how making art, the subject of which was Alzheimer’s, helped Barron cope as her parents, who were suffering from the disease, began to forget her. Even as their sickness worsened, they never forgot their love for each other. “I wanted my children and other people that have family with Alzheimer’s disease to know that they weren’t alone in this,” she said.
The book is available on Lulu.com . “Lulu was what I was called when I was in college. So I said, ‘Oh yes, this one is for me,’” she added.
Barron sent a copy of her book to Howser. “It was a way to say, ‘Thank you for the support for all these years,’ and to sort of clue him in to what the pieces were about in ’88,” she noted. “And he called me up. It happened to be my birthday. He called me up and said, ‘We should do another episode of that.’” A few weeks later, they made the second episode about lint art.
“Because he got clued in by the book, but also because he’s this wonderful person, when we went to the show, and he started to talk about the art, he said to everybody who watched the program, ‘I didn’t catch on to that. I didn’t realize it was Alzheimer’s disease years ago when I saw your show,” Barron said. “And I think that big-hearted person who could admit to somewhat of a mistake and let it be out there [publicly], I just thought even more about him as a wonderful person. And he had been very supportive of me. He showed that lint-art program very often.”