Visual Arts » 2D

Outbuilding of Oddities

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Something Jeff Ayers won't do is label the collage covering the walls of his Broad Ripple garage as fine art. Instead, he insists, it's silliness.

The silliness, though, is dear to him. An obsession, really. Stapler in hand, Ayers has spent hours at a time (and an estimated 4,700 staples) attaching the images of popular culture -- mainly photos, but also some objects -- to the walls of his home's 12 by 20-foot unattached garage.

Among the stapled-on photos in Jeff Ayers' garage are gardening tools, so the display is both arty and utilitarian.
  • Among the stapled-on photos in Jeff Ayers' garage are gardening tools, so the display is both arty and utilitarian.

There's an image of Marilyn Monroe smiling in a classic black swimsuit, with a church-like stained glass window behind her. Over her head is a cutout picture of Frank Sinatra holding Ayers' ticket to the Indianapolis Museum of Art's recent Ai Weiwei exhibition. Empty craft beer bottles, bocce balls and other trinkets are included. And a poster of the Sex Pistol's Sid Vicious appears to keep a watchful eye over everything.

"I can't imagine having bare walls around you. It just makes everything more fun to have art and pleasing things on your walls or, in my case, in your garage," says Ayers, a 56-year-old Indianapolis writer, musician and (he insists) amateur artist. "And I spend a lot of time in my garage, particularly in the warmer months."

A black and white picture of icon Marilyn Monroe is one of the largest images in Jeff Ayers' garage collage.
  • A black and white picture of icon Marilyn Monroe is one of the largest images in Jeff Ayers' garage collage.

He isn't alone. Ayers, his friends and neighbors play regular bocce ball games in an alley behind his home. During breaks, players socialize in the garage. Neighbors occasionally stop to see the collage and Ayers often invites people in, even if he doesn't know them.

"No one is a stranger to Jeff," says Fountain Square-based artist James Kelly. "As long as I've known him, he has often befriended complete strangers walking through the alley and ended up showing them his garage. He's quite gregarious."

A little help from his friends

Kelly is one of two local artists who contributed to the garage collage. Kelly -- known in the city as a pet portraiture expert who owns Mad Lab Studio -- is responsible for a small panel near the garage door that he filled with his own self portrait, examples of his works and a variety of images from illustration books he kept for years before giving to Ayers.

David Frohbieter, an Indianapolis artist who specializes in comic book-inspired illustrations and lives next door to Ayers, put his stamp on a part of the garage. Using cutout headlines from the satirical publication The Onion, Frohbieter created a vertical timeline from World War I to the Vietnam War. Then he went renegade, adding photos to parts of the garage he was unauthorized to work in.

"Frohbieter was, I swear to God, so absorbed in the putting up of pictures in his section, just like I had become, that he branched out and started cutting out little faces and placing them so I would find them over the course of time," says Ayers. "It was great."

Frohbieter admits to getting a wee bit obsessed with his part of the garage collage project.

"I was doing that more than I was actually working with my own stuff. Part of it was the pressure because I didn't want to lose my section," Frohbieter says. "I didn't want Jeff to start putting stuff in my section. He said it was going to be a year-long project (and he completed it in about a month)...He couldn't stop."

A garage or a 'cabinet of curiosities?'

Ayers' garage collage reminds Herron School of  Art and Design Assistant Professor of Art History and Museum Studies Laura Holzman of a European Renaissance-era cabinet of curiosities. Such a place could be a cabinet or a room. Collections were compiled through a collector's travels, personal exchanges or their professions - merchants, for example, would encounter a variety of people, giving them access to an array of objects, she said.

Jeff Ayers' Kessler Boulevard garage collage includes thousands of cut out photographs as well as found objects including bottles and bocce balls.
  • Jeff Ayers' Kessler Boulevard garage collage includes thousands of cut out photographs as well as found objects including bottles and bocce balls.

"It was really about making sense of the world through the eyes of the collector and the objects that struck his fancy," Holzman says. "You might have a shell from the West Indies paired with a piece of bone from a prehistoric animal and a print of a fish or a scientific drawing of an insect."

Holzman noticed a cutout in Ayers' collage that reads "Museum of Me."

"I think that is the perfect wall text," she says.

The garage also made her think of Vince Hannemann's Austin, Texas Cathedral of Junk, a more than 60-ton outdoor structure made of a mishmash of found objects, vegetation and more. Like Ayers, Hanneman says he created the cathedral because it was fun and as a sort-of clubhouse.

"It became a local pilgrimage site in Austin," says Holzman.

Ayers' project has the potential to contribute the city's quirky culture, she said.

But really, it has been doing that for decades.

The current garage collage was created earlier this year, as Ayers replaced an earlier version of it that was torn apart along with his former garage.

Ayers' original garage, which held the first versions of the collage, came with his circa 1940s Kessler Boulevard home when he bought the place in 1992. It had a leaky roof and the structure was unstable so it had to be torn down in March. By then, it wasn't advisable for cars or people to even stand inside, as it was on the verge of collapse, according to Ayers.

One of Ayers favorite parts of his garage collage is this photo of Frank Sinatra holding a ticket to the recent Ai Weiwei exhibition.
  • One of Ayers favorite parts of his garage collage is this photo of Frank Sinatra holding a ticket to the recent Ai Weiwei exhibition.

Despite the elaborate collage in the old garage, Ayers says he didn't mind seeing it razed. The idea of four, new blank walls to work on was compelling.

"If anything, I was excited about having a blank canvas," he says. "Surprisingly, other people were sentimental."

Days before the morning of its demise, friends stopped by to take last looks at the collage. Days afterward, Ayers was hard at work creating the piece that exists now.

"I used to have crumpled cigarette packs," says Ayers. "I had [dead] chipmunk tails that my stray cat Smoky would bring in and leave for me. I stapled them up there. She would leave only the tail. I don't advocate killing chipmunks for God's sakes, but that just happened. So anyway, the new garage doesn't have those kinds of items."

It's also safe for socializing and the functions a garage is usually used for - storing his car and gardening materials.

And it makes a nice alternative art gallery - something that Ayers has become adept at creating.

The rest of the house

Along with the garage, Ayers has a makeshift art gallery in his home's dining room.

The space is really a computer room. But in 2009, he inspired a small community art project and then hosted a reception to show it.

Among Jeff Ayers' arty endeavors was a portrait project called Ice Cube Head. One woman, Dortha Brickley, created a night light.
  • Among Jeff Ayers' arty endeavors was a portrait project called Ice Cube Head. One woman, Dortha Brickley, created a night light.

Ayers'  "Ice Cube Head project" came about after he was photographed with a large piece of ice on his head. The chunk had formed in a bucket outside his home and Ayers dislodged it and placed it on his head; Kelly snapped a photo. The picture was so interesting that Kelly painted it. Others followed. By spring, Ayers had collected about 20 Ice Cube Head portraits. The youngest portrait artist was 12. The oldest: 96. And the works included everything from pencil drawings, watercolors and oils to a nightlight that glows when you plug it in.

The home's bathroom is something of public art space, too. When people visit and need to use the facilities, Ayers encourages them to take colored Sharpie markers into the toilet with them to decorate the room's tile. So, when nature calls Ayers' guests, one by one, the tiles are colored with random messages and drawings.

"My bathroom is similarly decrepit as my old garage. One day it's going to have to be replaced. So, over the years, I have let people draw on the tile," Ayers says.

The participatory projects, plus Ayers jovial demeanor, have made him a beloved figure among his group of friends, family and neighbors. Among new guests to the home, the amateur artwork creates a lot of conversation.

"I don't think it's high art by any means. On the other hand I think, from the beginning of caveman times, people are compelled to put things on the wall. It's fun and, I think, almost in our DNA," he says. "I look at my dining room, I have 20 pictures on the wall. And the garage seemed like such a freeform place to really go nuts with it. People enjoy it...because it's so silly and fun. That's good."

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