From Garbage to Galleries

by Carrie Scozzaro & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & ne man's trash is another man's treasure. Or, in the case of Spokane "dumpster artist" Jim Battell, one man's cardboard is another man's canvas. "Sometimes when people see me," Battell says, "they recognize me as the guy who paints on cardboard."

Why cardboard? It's affordable and plentiful for this self-taught artist, who says he was influenced by Picasso's use of color and Van Gogh's textural style. His earliest work evolved from woodcarving and mobiles made from found wood. Battell's popular "Geezer sticks" -- driftwood walking sticks, sometimes woodburned or topped with a hand-painted visage of an elderly person -- eventually gave way to more narrative work that retained the artist's trademark wit.

You might even call Battell a wildlife artist of sorts. No, not ducks on a pond or bears fishing for salmon. How about chickens? Not actual chickens, which would make Battell more a folk artist. Rubber chickens. Sound familiar? Or maybe you remember his series of smoking animals?

Although Morris the Cat sucking on a cigarette was vaguely familiar to me, the rubber chickens were not, and it took some clarification as to whether he painted images of rubber chickens or painted on rubber chickens. (He does not paint on them, begging the question of which came first: the rubber chicken or the egg?) Battell recounted some of his favorites, including a rubber chicken lying on the beach suntanning, a kid in a pedal car being chased (aka the attack of the killer chickens), and a rubber chicken in captain's garb astern the SS Rubber Chicken. With his expressive style and impastoed style, Battell's work is like Picasso meets the Muppets.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & B & lt;/span & attell's affinity for rubber chickens began when he received one as a "booby prize" (insert rimshot sound here) at an office party. He gave it to his father, where it became a permanent fixture in the rec room area, only for Battell to get it back when his father passed away. While Freudians can read into that what they may, Battell says it's just "really silly." Reactions are generally favorable, he says, with the usual response to his work being that "it's just different."

That it is.

Battell's work is not above taking a jab at human foibles, however, particularly smokers. "Smoking is ridiculous," he says -- and it's even more ridiculous to see an animal smoking. In addition to using his pet cat, Pootsa, as a model, Battell also paints pigs, ostriches and dogs lighting up (favorites are wiener dogs and afghans).

More recently, Battell has been experimenting with piercings and tattoos, not on his body, but on the bodies of his menagerie of oft-smoking animals. Is he saying tattoos and piercings are ridulous human endeavors, too? Maybe. Or maybe he's just goofing around.

Sometimes it's hard to tell with this garrulous former radio ad-man, but one thing is for certain: his work has definite appeal to the mainstream. For more than five years now, Battell's vibrant acrylic paintings have appeared in local downtown coffeehouses, theater windows, florist shops and libraries. In May, Battell will exhibit between 25-30 paintings, including landscapes and portraits, at the Liberty Caf & eacute; in Auntie's Bookstore.

The Auntie's exhibit will include some of Battell's recent experiments into more sculptural works. Box-cutter in hand, Battell has begun cutting into the cardboard to reveal layers upon which he adds more paint. He also forms the cardboard so that it extends off the surface of the painting in relief.

Fueled by curiosity and a sense of lightheartedness, Battell describes his approach to art as serious only insomuch as he wants to continue to develop his talent. In other words, don't read too much into his work. Thus his use of recycled material is a practical solution to the need for plentiful, affordable painting surfaces, not an environmental statement (although Battell describes his dumpster-diving as "liberating" the cardboard before it becomes true waste).

And his dinner party of rubber chickens in formal attire is a satire, but not The Last Supper. "I ain't no Rembrandt," he says.

"Don't be silly," I want to respond. Oops. Too late. If there's one thing Jim Battell is, it's silly.

Jim Battell's work will be on display May 1-31 at Auntie's Bookstore, 402 W. Main Ave. Call 838-0206.

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