A pair of bottlecap eyes stares up from Lance Vargas' sawhorse in his backyard. Vargas picks up the creature, which is mounted on a slab of old wood, and dusts it with red spray paint, then adds a twist of wire on its head. He puts it down, waves his hand, and voila — someone's junk just got slapped with a $30 price tag.
Vargas, 35, works exclusively with salvaged wood as a template for his artwork, hoping to preserve rather than trash history and limit waste as much as possible. Whether it comes from a kitchen cabinet, neighbors' fences, gutted houses or sidewalk trash heaps, it's fair game. Vargas saves wood that otherwise would be headed for a landfill — "upcycling" garbage (think of the trash-to-treasure adage) into one-of-a-kind works of folk art.
In his backyard, there's a strong smell of paint, metal and wood. Vargas wears paint-splattered Crocs and a sleeveless T-shirt while working, flipping through flooded saw blades, tin and copper strips, old paint buckets and, of course, wood. He picks up a heavy, dark-colored two-by-four with bent cement nails barnacled and twisted in its side.
"When you cut that open, that smell just explodes," he says.
Because of its densely packed age rings, Vargas estimates the two-by-four is close to 400 years old. But that's the selling point — his customers don't just want to own the piece, they want its history.
Vargas lives with his fiancee at his Algiers Point home, which was built in the 1920s but is one of the youngest on the block. The others, shotguns and Creole cottages built as early as the 1890s, have been through plagues, storms and other natural disasters. He's borrowed wood from nearby trash piles destined for landfills and from a neighbor's fence that was recently torn down and used it to make dozens of pieces. "Weird little neighborhood," he says.
Vargas purchased his home in May 2005, then redid the original wood floors, his first venture into woodworking.
"It got me into the beauty of stain, the smell of it, how it reacts... That got me in the mode; 'What else can I do with this? Can I make art out of it?' When people started buying it, I was like, 'Yeah, I guess I can make art out of it.'"
The weekend finds Vargas perched on his spot on Jackson Square, setting up shop to sell his work to tourists and passers-by. But he has a rule: "They have to buy it, and then they hang it on their walls. They can't just buy it. They have to be like, 'Look!' Even if it's ugly, someone might like it."
Vargas moved to New Orleans in 2004 to find affordable housing following a graphic design gig at a newspaper in California.
"I just said, 'I want to do it all myself,'" he says. "I'd rather make $8 an hour than $12 or $16 an hour working for someone else when you're just going to get let go." But he never takes himself too seriously.
"It's asinine to me now to think, 'I'm going to take these chopped up pieces of wood, nail some stuff to it, spray-paint it and call it art, and go out projecting myself as an artist.'"
His work — found at local art markets, galleries and amid street art vendors at Jackson Square — draws from folklore, music, anatomy textbooks, bottlecaps (Abita and Miller High Life), and voodoo. ("I'm not versed in voodoo or anything. It's voodoo-'inspired'. The voodoo people will get on your ass when you get something wrong.") Vargas, who writes his blog The Chicory (www.thechicory.com/blog), also promotes his art through his Web site (www.leveeland.com).
He's part of an informal collective of artists who rely solely on damaged goods; his colleagues lift from movie sets that would end up in Dumpsters and troll neighborhoods-in-progress for discarded materials. Though the recycled style isn't a new idea in the art world, it's an important one, according to Vargas, who aims to put an end to wasteful living.
"When I was young and stupid, I didn't care," he says. "As you get older, it gathers moss. You start to realize just how much stuff is wasted. If it grew, if it's a tree, if it lived — trees to me are pretty magnificent — we owe it to them to keep them around as long as possible. Even though organic stuff is among the most biodegradable stuff in the landfill, there's no reason for it to make it there. A lot of that plywood and those two-by-fours can be used for something."
Apart from finding hurricane-damaged wood or receiving donations from renovating neighbors, Vargas also finds his canvases from recyclers The Green Project and Habitat ReStore, where another neighbor found several doors for their home.
"They look great — they're beat up and stuff, but it's a shotgun house," he says. "It needed to have that organic look to it."
Vargas exits his work shed with Doris, his Jack Russell terrier, with sawdust fluttering in a bit of light coming through cracks in the door, and heads inside the house, a folk art collections department of sorts. He sits on the front porch next to an old church pew adorned with a skeletal figure he carved from wood, surrounded by the weathered yellow paint on his nearly century-old home.
"I think anything wood-related is the best art," he says. "I'm really into primitive stuff. That's another thing I really like about wood — how strong it is. It holds up a house, soaks in things. I wish I could do something like this pew. Maybe in time I will."