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Everyday Ephemera

Beer cans, hair clippings and mini football players: These fanatical Richmond collectors talk about the things that make them go oooh.

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Since 1977, Caryl Burtner has kept and cataloged such everyday items from her life as toothbrushes, lipstick blots, locks of hair and diary entries. She keeps meticulously organized binders in which she carefully documents such minutia as tablecloths she's owned and when she's played a music album.

"'Art for my sake' is what I've called my stuff for years and years," Burtner says. "It all started just for me and I think that's what makes it true and real and genuine. I don't really do it for anybody else but it's nice when people want to see it."

And they do. Her collections have been exhibited in galleries nationwide and one of her works was pictured in Harper's Magazine.

Is there a fine line between collecting and hoarding? We're not here to judge. But one thing we know, collecting is as much about the journey as the item itself.

At the end of "Four Quartets," T.S. Eliot admonishes his readers to "not cease from exploration [because] / the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time."

The process of exploration is an individual journey not about arrival, but about self-discovery. Finding an alternative world, a moment of hope — maybe it isn't just about digging an elusive, rare, beer can out of the trash.

 

SCOTT ELMQUIST

Caryl Burtner, 57
Conceptual Artist

"Art for my sake" is what I've called my stuff for years and years. It started when I was in college. There was a fire in my apartment and it wiped out most everything. I write down what happens every day, and I lost 1974 and 1975 and 1976. That is a really big deal to me. That is huge. It got me thinking about what's important and what isn't.

The toothbrush collection was probably my initial collection. It was because my toothbrush survived. I started thinking: You buy something like a bottle of shampoo that's going to last a year, let's say, and you just don't know what's going to happen in that time. It's ominous in a way.

I document subtle changes — toothpaste logos, the design. They're just always tweaking it and that's why I'm trying to capture how one year slips into another and another year slips into another visually. I just started looking at time and marking time with products.

I was recently showing these hair samples. Here's my hair from 1958. I think hair is an excellent way to mark the passage of time — hairdos, colors. When I present these in the gallery I also get samples from people and they put their name and dates on little bags.

This is my collection of Friday the 13th diary entries. I have journal entries going back to 1971 — the earliest one, Aug. 13, 1971, says that I hemmed my hot pants, so I guess they weren't short enough. They usually show that Friday the 13th is a pretty normal time but sometimes things can go wrong that day.

When I was very young and had a lot of spare time, I would document every cereal box I'd ever bought — every single one, but I just kept the box top. I still do when I change cereals — I eat one thing for a period of a time and when I switch I kind of in my mind realize it's a new era, it's a new cereal era!

Is it nostalgia? I don't know. I'm just a natural born archivist. Yes it is nostalgic, it's sentimental but I think it's important too. It's history. — as told to Richard Foster

 

SCOTT ELMQUIST

Richard Bland, 62
Collector of Richmond Memorobilia

After school, most kids go to the soda fountain or play basketball. I went to a secondhand store near Goldsboro, N.C. It was all old stuff that Wiley and his wife, Wanda, brought in, plus a generous supply of flies.

My first purchase 50 years ago was a 9-foot matador poster from Spain dated 1928. It hung in my room where I'd built a tent to look like Arabia. I still have that tent thing in my blood and I still have the poster.

I came to Richmond Professional Institute [which became part of Virginia Commonwealth University] in 1968. Whenever you come into any city you wonder about things and want to assimilate the culture in your own home. I had a place, a basement on West Franklin Street, and I filled it with things from the alleys. I had interest in abandoned pharmacies. I found seltzer dispensers, and enamel signs with all kinds of advertising. One sign was from Chelf's Drugstore [which stood at Grace and Shafer] and I had a Chelf's cobalt blue celery bottle. The Fan was working class then.

In 1982 I helped a friend rebuild a collapsed, 6,700-square-foot carriage repository in the Fan District with old beams from Petersburg. I took it over in 1987. I installed some antique windows and like hanging tapestries above the windows to break the space up.

Among the photos I'm glad to have is an Alexander Gardner image taken after Richmond's evacuation in April 1865 of the stone bridge over the canal and the Crenshaw Mills. I have a stereoptic of the Capitol collapse in the 1870s and a fabulous picture of a Hollywood Cemetery pump house that connected to Clarke Springs. And then I have oddballs like a 1940s car that struck a trolley car in front of the Main Street Grill.

When you're interested in something, things just turn up. Nostalgia is the root of all evil. — as told to Edwin Slipek

 

SCOTT ELMQUIST

Margot Krëhbiël, 28
Camera Collector

I got my first camera at age 6, a 1946 Graflex Babyspeed medium format camera that was completely manual — and I still use it today. Both my maternal grandfather, who was English, and paternal grandfather, who was German, were amateur photographers and collected pre-World War II cameras. They offered me not only aesthetic lessons but applied darkroom methods and historic milestones in photography. I was 7 or 8 at the time.

I've been a student my whole life. The fact that this simple box can make an image — that curiosity you have as a child always had me completely enthralled. You can take millions of photos before you know you have the right one.

I now have around 250 cameras. Half are in storage at the moment. The remaining are in my studio in western Goochland. Less than half of them are in working order. The ones I cannot restore myself are all Polaroids — an engineering nightmare for me.

Some of my favorites are a Kiev 88, a Ukrainian medium format camera that takes 120 mm film; a German 1958 manual Rolleiflex TLR, or twin-lens reflex. And my large-format camera, a 1948 Graflex View 2, which I use on a weekly basis. But I collect anything I can get my hands on. One is a wet-plate collodion made completely out of wood from the late 1860s. I've been trying to restore it but it's difficult to get the right parts.

I came to VCU for communication arts illustration in photography and have been here for about 10 years. It's still a personal journey for me to create an image that communicates a narrative. ... Using the conventional chemicals can be dangerous. I've been trying to lean toward alternative processing — using coffee crystals and silk crystals, combined with developer — which emanates this strange tuna smell. Technology is great, but I am all about analog, all about film. I still want to do this thing that not a lot of other people do anymore. Developing is a lost art.

It's the imperfections. Light leaks, if the camera is not sealed, create ghostly beams. Sometimes I get sloppy with unraveling film out of the coils. Sometimes you get damage, but I like that. That works for me. To me, the image is like a diamond. The little inclusions are what make each image unique and tell you this is film, it's not perfect. That's what makes it perfect. — as told to Brent Baldwin

Krëhbiël shoots freelance fashion, editorial and commercial photography through her business, Krëhb Fotografie. krehbfotografie.tumblr.com.

 

SCOTT ELMQUIST

Mark Francis, 53
Miniature Electric Football Figure Collector

About six years ago, when my son was 6, I was trying to get him into something more interactive than video games. I remembered playing electric football as a kid. But I wasn't happy with [commercial sets] available. I actually make the football figures — hand-paint them, decal them, stick face masks on them, tweak the bases, do everything. Now I am about seven teams short of all 32 football teams [with around 60 players on each team] — home and away jerseys. I have throwback teams. I go to conventions, bring all my teams, occasionally sell them at $400 or $500 a team. But I don't want to make a business of it, because I want to keep it fun.

I'm a 49er fan. I've got the '94 team, the 2003 team and the current team. For me, the challenge is painting. The decaling is easy. The face masks are hard — you've got to buy them, spray paint them, pry them off metal sheets, bend them and super glue them, and they're super tiny. You have to use tweezers.

Today's boards are much better than they used to be — most are custom made. One guy in Texas makes surrounding stadiums that match the NFL stadiums. The only thing that hasn't changed is the quarterback, which is the same as 30 years ago.

[The hobby] started as a way to connect with my son, but he's 12 now and it's too slow for him. Now there's a fraternity of people I've met around the country. We meet annually in Canton, Ohio, and have a tournament in association with the NFL Hall of Fame. The national club is called MFCA — Miniature Football Coaches Association. There are at least 200 members. We have some in Europe, a few Frenchies.

Most people wonder why I do it — it was such a crazy game, frustrating and fun. People remember fighting among siblings. With electronic football you have the satisfaction of pitting yourself against a live opponent who is as good as you, the figures move fast, and you have to make decisions in a split second. You can get the figures to do so much more these days.

But the NFL has done everything they can to prohibit us. They've aggressively sicced their lawyers on some of the most progressive makers of decals and those who sell teams over the Web. So it's gone underground. You have to know somebody to get anything these days. — as told to Brent Baldwin

Francis' work is featured in "The Electric Football Game Art Show," curated by Style Weekly Calendar Editor Chris Bopst, on display at ADA Gallery through Sept. 13. adagallery.com.

 

SCOTT ELMQUIST

Chip Sims, 47
Vintage Beer Can Collector

I collect cans that were made pre-1965, which is when beer cans first came into play. They were first sold here in Richmond as a test market to see if cans would go over. And they did.

I collect what's called cone-tops and flat-top cans. They were opened with a church key. And the cone tops [which look like a bottle of brake fluid] were opened with a bottle opener. They were made by Continental Can Co. The [cone tops] were phased out by probably the late 1960s in favor of the flat-top can, which was a whole lot easier to store in your refrigerator.

Back when I was probably in fifth or sixth grade in Little Rock, Ark., a buddy of mine started picking them up on the side of the road. And I just thought they looked really cool, all the different designs on them. ... I collected about anything back them.

About 1984, I got out of it a little bit and put them all away. Then about 1992, I went up in my parents' attic and I found them again. And I said, well, this time when I start collecting, I'm going to designate my interest to one thing, and that was the older type of cans. And now I've amassed a collection of about 3,500 to 4,000. I won't get into how much it's worth. But let's put it this way, I had to get an insurance policy on it.

We have a chapter here in the Central Virginia area called the Richbrau Chapter. We get together at certain times of the year, and we trade and sell cans. Ebay is another outlet for getting them. A lot of times, plumbers or electricians, or people that do duct work under houses or attics will find them, and put a whole pile on Craigslist to sell.

A lot of times we'll go digging behind old houses. Years and years ago, before they had trash trucks that came around and picked up people's garbage, a lot of people would just take their stuff out far enough where they didn't smell it and lose it in the woods. All the paper and nasty stuff has rotted away. And all that's really left is cans and bottles. Usually you have to wait till your first couple of freezes, because you want all the ticks and bees and snakes to be gone. We've got something called oxalic acid that will take the rust off, but it leaves all the paint.

One [elusive can] is from California, and obviously I won't ever find it around here, called Chief Pilsner. Beautiful can. But there's only like five or six known in the whole world. And I think my chances of getting it are pretty slim. But hey, you never know. It's something to shoot for. — as told to Jason Roop

Information about the Richbrau Chapter of the Beer Can Collectors of America can be found online at bcca.com, or by calling Sims at 420-7925.

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