Hendersonville artist Bobbie Polizzi knows better than anybody that one person’s trash can be another person’s treasure. But she takes it a step further, transforming found treasures into totemic works of art that often combine religious symbolism and mythology with a whimsical spirit. Bobbie’s work takes its immediate cue from Southern folk art, but it’s informed by her formative years in southern California, the rich iconography of Mexican religious faith, and cultures even farther afield. “It’s considered assemblage art using recycled materials, but I call it ‘junk and disorderly’,” Bobbie says of her work.
Foraging for material was an early influence during her childhood years growing up in the San Fernando Valley, where she regularly filled her Radio Flyer wagon with neighborhood curbside trash and items found in dumpsters. There was the added blessing of an artistically gifted mother who worked in oils and encouraged her daughter by arranging private art tutoring by the time Bobbie was ten years old. A Catholic education (“12 years of ruler-wielding nuns,” as Bobbie describes it) and immersion in southern California’s rich Latin culture embedded the symbols of religious devotion deep in Bobbie’s artistic awareness.
“Her work is intricate, whimsical, mysterious,” says Susan Olivari of East Flat Rock’s Art House Gallery. “Everyone who views it gets drawn in for a much closer look.” Common elements include crucifixes, baby dolls arranged to suggest the infant Jesus, cherubic sculptural figures, and skulls drawn from the symbolism of Mexico’s Dia de Los Muertos. Many of the assembled pieces are structurally reminiscent of the monstrances and chalices used in Catholic ritual, despite the quotidian nature of their constituent parts. A Dia de Los Muertos altarpiece includes parts of a downspout filter, while other pieces incorporate baby shoes, an Army songbook from World War One, rusted bottle caps and roller skates. “The inspiration generally begins with the ‘junk’ which suggests a form or image to me,” Bobbie says. “I’m never quite sure where a piece will end up when it’s completed. My stash of trash drives the bus.”
Although the 68-year-old artist has been working full time at her craft for just two years, her professional life as an art director and creative director for advertising agencies helped shape her instincts. The work required a good deal of travel and exposure to other cultures, from South America to Southeast Asia, lending complexity and diversity to her pieces. One of Bobbie’s more elaborate constructions, “Baba Yaga,” inspired by a Russian folk tale, mixes western and eastern religious themes to form a piece that could as easily be encountered in a Buddhist temple as in a cathedral. The southern folk art Bobbie found when she relocated to North Carolina for her advertising work became a powerful influence, a discovery of kindred spirits dedicated to the imaginative uses of humble materials. “My work seems to be a second cousin to this tradition of turning junk into jewels,” Bobbie says.
Despite the religious and mythic underpinnings, a viewer of Bobbie’s work disinclined to contemplate deeper meanings can find pleasure in the playfulness of the pieces. Even the titles Bobbie gives them can bring a smile, as with her riff on a well-known Beatles song for a bulbously shaped bird perched on top of a carousel-like base surrounded by skulls, which she titled “Fat Bird Singing With The Dead Of Night.” There is her homage to the Christian martyr Saint Barbara incorporating parts of a Barbie doll as “Saint Barbie,” in her role of patron saint of broken dolls. “Bobbie’s pieces evoke a Victorian-era iconography through the eyes of a Tim Burton or a [Heironymus] Bosch,” one gallery owner noted of her work after a group show two years ago called “Surreal Appalachia,” although the show’s title adjective, Bobbie thought, wasn’t quite accurate. “I see my work as more fantasy with steampunk influences,” she says.
Thanks to her mother’s encouragement, Bobbie’s worked in other media but has always returned to her fascination with the cast-off items that are one of humanity’s less salubrious contributions to the planet. “I’ve worked in various materials over a span of years, but I find assemblage art suits my love of junk,” Bobbie says. “And it usually incorporates painting and sometimes drawing.” Text, photography and typography can also find their way into her work.
One of Bobbie’s largest pieces to date, which she calls “Fiddle Styx,” is nearing completion, incorporating a discarded violin and several dolls. Smaller pieces that introduce themselves with a smile but reveal much more on closer inspection will be on show this month at the Haywood County Arts Council’s show, “Local Favors.” “My work is sometimes dark and mysterious,” Bobbie says. “But it’s always gratifying.”