By Karen Parr-Moody
Feb. 26, 2020 (Nashville, Tenn.) – There’s a hint of the sacred–profane dichotomy in the assemblage art created by Carolyn Jarrett Elam, who exhibits her work at GasLamp Too’s T-416 gallery wall. The items – dime store toys mixed with other nostalgic ephemera, all vintage – are not inherently spiritual. But by careful placement, the artist renders them talisman-like, as if she is creating a pop-culture altarpiece.
“The attraction to texture has always drawn me to the touch and juxtaposition of vintage items, especially those from the mid-twentieth century,” Elam says.
Elam is a self-taught assemblage artist from Nashville. She began her career as the owner of White Way Antique Mall, which she operated here for 24 years. She then conducted estate sales for another 10 years.
Detail of Carolyn Elam’s “Rocky”
Over the years, Elam amassed a trove of collectables and tiny toys. She began using them to create assemblage art, first as two-dimensional artworks and, currently, in three-dimensional forms. Elam sometimes refashions the pieces used in her art – as with a plastic doll wearing a metal top hat.
“I’ve always liked odd little things,” she says. “I just picked them up along the way by being in the antiques business for so long.”
Elam’s sculptural artworks typically feature an item that correlates with the title, as opposed to being completely surreal or abstract. For example, “He Was a Harvard Man” features a sew-on patch from the Ivy League university.
Elam explains that the art of store display was a major part of her prior careers as an antique mall owner and an estate sale organizer. That history affects her current artworks.
“My love for the placement and the balancing of the colors of objects goes back many years,” she says. “The assemblage art that I am now creating is a miniature version of the world of antiques and collectibles where I spent so many years. Hopefully, humor and irony find their place as well.”
“He Excelled at Growing Corn” by Carolyn Elam
Currently on view on her gallery wall are several pieces that reveal – and revel in – a sense of humor. “He Excelled at Growing Corn” is topped by a metal figure in work clothes, his metallic gold paint peeling off as he holds seven ears of corn ($450; T-416). To his left is a nude female figure lounging on a carved corner molding. More ephemera is placed throughout the piece: A silver jack, a colorful tin horse, an empty package of Beech-Nut chewing gum and marbles.
“He Was a Harvard Man” by Carolyn Elam
“He Was a Harvard Man” receives its title from a shield-shaped Harvard University sew-on patch placed at the upper-right corner ($425; T-416). Among the other tiny treasures: A “guided tour” pin for the American Association of the United Nations and a vintage wood-and-metal bobble head mouse facing another bobble head toy, an elephant in a red shirt.
Shades of sky blue are woven throughout “He Was a Harvard Man” by carefully positioned pieces of ephemera. The color is seen in several items: The dress of a blonde figurine, a squirrel’s ball, a scarab, a plastic smiley-face ring and a tiny motorcycle. The background is covered in a marbled tissue paper veined with stripes of sky blue.
“Rocky” by Carolyn Elam
A sense of fun and feistiness imbues the assemblage “Rocky” – beginning with a tiny Godzilla that Elam has fashioned to hold a rusty toy truck over his head ($400; T-416). Among the other finds? A dice, a horseshoe, a tiny Coke bottle, a cat wearing a bow tie and red pants, four Scottie dog figurines and a pin bearing the name “Rocky.”
“Wild N’ Crazy Guy” by Carolyn Elam
The piece “Wild and Crazy Guy” is topped with a red pin bearing the words “wild n’ crazy guy” – a phrase popularized by comedian Steve Martin ($425; T-416). Among the tiny finds is a watch face, a wooden elephant, a dollhouse dresser and a “Mother Goose” tin emblazoned with a black witch’s silhouette.
Elam continues to seek items in antique shops and from eBay to create her assemblages.
“I gather things that I find sort of wacky with a little twist to them,” Elam says. “I like the humor of the juxtaposition of unlikely things being put together, like a pig on top of a house.”
Her work bears a faint resemblance to that of Joseph Cornell, a contemporary of Max Ernst, Salvador Dali and Man Ray who was influenced by the Surrealist movement. Cornell, who worked out of his home in Queens, N.Y., was among the pioneers of assemblage art and certainly one of the most celebrated in that niche. Beyond that, Cornell was a forerunner to Andy Warhol in that he celebrated celebrities with his art. Such was Cornell’s extreme sense of nostalgia that he didn’t discriminate based on time – any romantic “star” of past centuries was fodder for the shadowboxes he constructed. At various times his work honored the Medici royalty of Renaissance fame, star dancers of the Ballets Russes, a 19th-century Italian opera singer and a famous actress of his generation, Lauren Bacall.
One feels a similar sense of nostalgia for the mid-twentieth century in Elam’s work, which takes us to a time and place when tiny dime store toys were the stars of many a child’s show.