by Mary Anna Rodabaugh
“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Or, one man’s trash is another artist’s canvas. That is what Kim Alsbrooks thought in 2003 when she began using street trash as a canvas for her paintings. Inspired by 17th and 18th century portraits, Alsbrooks uses classic oil and varnish techniques to paint miniature portraits directly onto abandoned garbage.
Ten years and over 600 works later, Alsbrooks presented the final installment of her street trash series. The exhibit, entitled Last Memories: The End of My White Trash Paintings, opened on Friday, February 7th at the Snyderman-Works Galleries at 303 Cherry Street. Her exhibit generated quite the buzz from gallery visitors on First Friday, many expressing excitement and appreciation for “those unique trash paintings.”
Her portrait subjects are considered elite and even somewhat regal. Thomas Jefferson, with a hint of a smirk on his face, sits centered on a Pabst Blue Ribbon can. Rawlings Lowndes, a lawyer, politician, and former president/governor of South Carolina stares at you from a flattened Arctic Splash Lemon Flavored Iced Tea carton. John Adams, wearing a rust colored jacket, is planted on the side of a Coors Light can.
My personal favorite is the proud Catesby ap Roger Jones, Executive Officer on the first Confederate Ironclad warship, Virginia. Painted on a Budweiser can, Jones’s placement is quite strategic. Directly beneath the black oval bordering his portrait is Budweiser’s slogan, “King of Beers,” suggesting that Jones himself is the king of beers. This juxtaposition straddles the line between mockery and modesty, humbling the elite figure at hand.
Every artistic decision is intentional. Alsbrooks only uses pre-flattened trash. She refuses to make any flattening adjustments to her canvas, and the apparel and background for the subjects tend to match the color scheme of the trash.
“When I find a portrait I want to paint, I look for the can where it would fit best. It is like marrying a lamp to a lampshade,” Alsbrooks said.
The original portrait serves as the key inspiration. Out of respect, Alsbrooks credits the original portrait painter when possible.
“I grew up in Charleston. The City Museum houses a large collection of miniatures. Their catalogue was a main source of reference for me. I have fittingly included a lot of my own family – The Pringles, one of whom is included in this exhibition. Once I was back in Philadelphia, I referenced local history books. Interestingly, the historical connections are strong between Charleston and Philadelphia. Socially and politically, they were very entwined,” Alsbrooks wrote in her artist’s statement.
Her miniature portraits are so detailed you can make out the lines on her subjects’ faces. Eyebrows are perfectly arched and eyes are bright and crisp. In, Priscilla, the whitish blond curls of her subject’s hair are painted in delicate swirls, giving the curly locks a three-dimensional appearance. The same technique was applied to the bluish-white feathers protruding from Priscilla’s large black hat.
Though unique, fascinating, and a joy to observe, this final exhibition marks the end of an era. Alsbrooks feels she has completely exhausted the subject matter in her enormous “White Trash Family.”
“It is a logical progression. When I started, I didn’t know how to paint with oil paints. At this point, I want to paint other things,” Alsbrooks said.
The “family” is complete. It is time to move on.