Potential pieces for assemblage art come from all over, says artist Sara Saltee. They could be trinkets of other people’s lives found at thrift stores and estate sales, shiny metal parts discovered in landfills and cool stuff found by friends who are always on the look out for “shrine worthy” objects. (Photo by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News Group)

Potential pieces for assemblage art come from all over, says artist Sara Saltee. They could be trinkets of other people’s lives found at thrift stores and estate sales, shiny metal parts discovered in landfills and cool stuff found by friends who are always on the look out for “shrine worthy” objects. (Photo by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News Group)

Arranging life little by little, piece by piece

Assemblage art is all in the details

Sara Saltee isn’t surprised anymore by the photos of weird random strange items popping up on her phone.

It’s her friends inquiring about the scale of usefulness for Saltee’s assemblage art.

“When they are at garage sales, they send me photos of boxes or really cool objects asking, ‘Is this shrine worthy?’” she said.

She often also finds small wooden boxes left at her door step of her studio at Clinton’s Blueschool Arts.

“People keep leaving me boxes,” Saltee said, pointing to a tilting pile of wooden shadow boxes, cabinet drawers, cigar boxes and assorted other potential holders for her three-dimensional collages.

Saltee is one of 10 female artists featured in the fourth annual Creative Recycled Art Projects, known as CRAP. The show is April 5-21 at Whidbey Center for the Arts and is free and open to the public.

The diverse group of artists uses bits and bobs recycled from construction sites, local dumps, thrift stores and garages to create fun and stimulating pieces of art, said artist Janet Phiefer who dreamed up the show four years ago when she had a leftover astronaut suit built of all things recycled for a Museum of Flight exhibit.

The show is part of Whidbey Island Earth and Ocean Month’s events and workshops. It challenges the viewer to look closer, not just at the composition, but at our disposable way of life, Phiefer said.

“Look closely and you may see, within a piece, something you tossed in the trash,” she said.

Saltee makes one-of-a-kind shrines and shadowboxes filled with objects that express a feeling, a time, a history, maybe even a lifetime.

“I often start with a quote that I find inspirational for what it evokes for me,” she said. “Or I start with one word.”

Saltee grew up in New Mexico where little worlds are created in boxes or frames, called retablos, an art form derived from traditional Catholic church art. Oftentimes, they are shrines filled with revered objects on an alter.

Important to Mexican folk religion, the form is now popular folk art that has evolved into many shapes, sizes and symbolism and is known as assemblage art.

Saltee uses many kinds of textures, scraps of fabric, letters from Scrabble games, jewelry, beads, buttons and other tiny pieces of everyday life that are framed and arranged in a three-dimensional setting from shadowboxes to the drawers of an old kitchen cabinet.

“Picking the right box, size and scale and thinking a lot about it is key,” Saltee said. “Assemblage is thinking in layers. What is going to be the background, the collage, the items? That’s the joy and challenge of it.”

Assemblage is not just putting a lot of stuff in a box, Saltee said.

“I try to tell a story or evoke a message,” she said. “But not everyone reads objects as symbols so it can be seen as ‘just another weird collage.’”

Occasionally, she does commission work for people who give her many possible elements and leave it to her to create the story through the small objects.

“They’ve got the elements but not the vision so I put it together,” said Saltee, who also works as a creativity coach for writers, artists and others. “I had a long conversation with one client who wanted to surprise her sister. When her sister received the piece, she asked how I knew so much about her life.”

Once a year, Saltee teaches a three-session class on the art of assemblage.

“I take all my supplies and materials into the bigger room and tell students to bring their own boxes,” she said. “You don’t have to have any art experience at all. I learned everything by experimentation.”

The most important lesson she learned early on involves the substance that makes everything stick.

“Don’t glue too fast. I tell them that right away.”

— See C.R.A.P: The 4th Annual C.R.A.P. show, Creative Recycled Art Projects, features 10 artists showing how recycling everyday items into art keeps things out of the landfill. Show runs April 5-21 at Lasher Gallery of Whidbey Island Center for the Arts, 565 Camano Ave., Langley. Free, open to the public.

— Artwork by Sara Saltee can be found at: www.blueschoolarts.com

Sara Saltee works in the afternoon light at her studio in Clinton’s Blueschool Arts, a shared space for artists. Photo by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News Group

Sara Saltee works in the afternoon light at her studio in Clinton’s Blueschool Arts, a shared space for artists. Photo by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News Group

“Time is an important element in creating assemblage art,” said Sara Saltee. ‘There’s a kind of mystery and synchronicity to it.” Her work is one of many being shown April 5-21 at the 4th Annual C.R.A.P. show, Creative Recycled Art Projects, at WICA. It features 10 artists showing how recycling everyday items into art keeps things out of the landfill.

“Time is an important element in creating assemblage art,” said Sara Saltee. ‘There’s a kind of mystery and synchronicity to it.” Her work is one of many being shown April 5-21 at the 4th Annual C.R.A.P. show, Creative Recycled Art Projects, at WICA. It features 10 artists showing how recycling everyday items into art keeps things out of the landfill.

Assemblage art by Sara Saltee

Assemblage art by Sara Saltee

A detail shot within one of the piece’s by Sara Saltee representing taking steps toward “baby courage.”

A detail shot within one of the piece’s by Sara Saltee representing taking steps toward “baby courage.”

Sara Saltee assembled this shadow box as she anticipates her daughter leaving the nest. “This is my letting go piece,” she said. She painted quail eggs and found bird images and wristwatch faces at an antique store in La Conner.

Sara Saltee assembled this shadow box as she anticipates her daughter leaving the nest. “This is my letting go piece,” she said. She painted quail eggs and found bird images and wristwatch faces at an antique store in La Conner.

“But the beauty is in the walking — we are betrayed by destinations,”	a quote by Gwyn Thomas, is found within this work by Sara Saltee.

“But the beauty is in the walking — we are betrayed by destinations,” a quote by Gwyn Thomas, is found within this work by Sara Saltee.

Details within Sara Saltee’s pieces can be whimsical, wonderous, touching and tender.

Details within Sara Saltee’s pieces can be whimsical, wonderous, touching and tender.

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