What do you get when you fold hundreds of Dum Dum wrappers into origami boats and glue them to the pages of old legal texts?
Austin-based artist Philip Durst knows, because he's done it. That particular piece of his collection, called "High and Lonesome," will be part of Durst's show at Michael Mitchell Gallery here in Charleston.
Durst, who calls his art "part therapy, part recycling," still has a day job, practicing employment and civil rights law down in Austin. When his sons left home for college, he and his wife "totally took over their rooms." His wife is a quilter, and having access to all her tools and fabrics gave him an idea. He started taking various found objects (candy boxes, cigarette coupons from the 1950s, and even the little paper soufflé cups in which you pour ketchup at fast food restaurants), and he began to cut them. To fold them. To glue them to paper in sometimes random, sometimes patterned ways. It became a hobby, and the hobby grew.
The art scene in Austin is a good one. A small Austin gallery asked to carry a piece of Durst's, and then another gallery owner saw it, "adopted" Durst, and gave him his first featured show. Things have continued from there, with "minimal shameless self-promotion," with this show at Michael Mitchell.
If his art sounds fun, that's because it is. Art offers Durst a bit of freedom from the rigidity of legal practice. It also gives him a bit of a break even while on the job. The process of cutting and folding is more fun when shared, and he's worked on his pieces while sitting through many of the long, often-tedious meetings lawyers often navigate. He's even brought lawyers for the opposing side into the fold, letting them cut and manipulate paper during hours of depositions.
His pieces are all three-dimensional, and they're all tactile. He is interested in how hidden patterns emerge when the third dimension is added, and he creates with this in mind.
Then comes the hobby-within-a-hobby, because Durst enjoys creating, as he calls them, "pretentious art titles" almost as much as he enjoys creating the art itself. Titles of his pieces range from "The Final Deliquescence of the Baroque" to "No Moral Judgment Stands Alone," to my favorite name, "Cheerios Heroicus Sublimus." Apparently when English isn't pretentious enough, Durst turns to the most pretentious language available, Latin. Lucky for him, most lawyers have to learn at least a smattering of Latin to pass the bar exam, so he's got a way with those words as well.
Durst spends a fair amount of time amassing his supply stash. For some objects, trips to the local 7-Eleven have become epic. He buys full boxes of candy, and since "you must suffer for your art," he says, they are emptied and eaten. Restaurant supply stores are key for certain materials, like the paper soufflé cups, and the maker of Dum Dum lollipops is happy to give Durst bits of labels straight from their factories. And when the going gets tough, Durst turns to eBay for supplies. He purchased his cigarette coupons from the site and says, with a sardonic laugh, "I bought someone's black lung." It's a chilling thought, sure, but also a strange concept: making art from someone else's addiction. Talk about recycling.
Though he hopes to come to Charleston to see his own show in person, Durst has no plans to leave Austin for good anytime soon. "The thing with Austin," he says, "is that you don't live in Texas. You live in Austin." Sounds a lot like Charleston, or so we like to think.