STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Even in a tight economy, we're always discarding things. If the umbrella's busted, you dump it. If your pills are finished, you throw out the bottle. And if you lose the lottery, you toss the ticket. Or you can turn those losses into gains. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg met a young woman who takes these discarded objects and makes art.
SUSAN STAMBERG: Her name is Jean Shin. She's 38, Korean-American from Bethesda, Maryland, and eight of her works - sculptures, installations, assemblages, whatever - go on view today at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
One long piece commissioned by the museum is a gleaming lineup of some 2,000 sports trophies, like the ones in that carton in your basement, except Jean Shin has changed what the sportspeople are doing. The little gold bowling figures?
Ms. JEAN SHIN (Artist): I remove the actual bowling ball and instead inserted a stroller.
STAMBERG: The basketball trophies?
Ms. SHIN: I removed the ball and handed them a hammer.
STAMBERG: The soccer player holds a typewriter. The cheerleader serves a dish of food. All Jean Shin's trophy champions do ordinary, essential work. They contribute to society, but are usually overlooked.
Ms. SHIN: They're the people who aren't getting trophies today.
STAMBERG: So Shin does the honors with this piece called "Everyday Monuments." And all of a sudden, those old trophies you can't bear to throw away but are buried in the basement, turn into something else.
Ms. SHIN: I really hope that it encourages people to look carefully.
STAMBERG: That's the goal of all Shin's work. Old neck ties - the silk stained or spotted, richly colored, lots of red, the power color - dozens and dozens of them knotted along the top of a long chain-linked fence. "Untied," the piece is called. It was first shown outdoors near Yale in New Haven. Jean thought viewers would add to the display.
Ms. SHIN: That was not the reaction I got.
STAMBERG: The fence was in a rundown neighborhood. Passersby saw the bright silk ties and walked off with them.
Ms. SHIN: You know, this was a middle of my install where I wasn't in New Haven. So I'd go home, and the next day, decide to install more. But then, most of the - some of the ties had left their destination. So…
STAMBERG: No, they'd been take from your - you're being awfully gracious about this.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SHIN: No.
STAMBERG: Let's call a tie a tie.
Ms. SHIN: I did approach this one man who was dressed very, very nicely and obviously going to work, and he had his whole arm full of ties. And I ended up like, hi, introduced myself, I'm the artist. And he was of course embarrassed, mortified, was like, oh here, I'm so sorry. Here, I can put it back, you know.
STAMBERG: Jean Shin learned a lot from this piece, a work she says is about more than ties and fences.
Ms. SHIN: How many barriers all of us have crossed or made disappear, perhaps, to get to where we are. So it's also seeing the other side of something.
STAMBERG: Why is this art, a bunch of old trophies and a bunch of old used ties?
Ms. JOANNA MARSH (Smithsonian American Art Museum): Well, I think it - when it's sitting in your basement in a box or in your attic, it's not art.
STAMBERG: Joanna Marsh organized this show at the American Art museum.
Ms. MARSH: But in Jean's hands, the process of making these objects new again, of giving them life, restored purpose, and making us look at them - or asking us to look at them - in a completely new way is very artful.
Ms. SHIN: My work comes from conceptualism first, so I'm interested in the ideas as well.
STAMBERG: What does conceptualism mean? And that's one of those things that art critics and curators always toss around, and nobody really understands it.
Ms. SHIN: As artists, we're thinking about these ideas that are meaningful to us, and that hope that other viewers can also translate the viewing experience into a thinking process. For me, my meaning is just not looking, but feeling and thinking.
STAMBERG: Curator Joanna Marsh says for Shin, the thought comes first.
Ms. MARSH: She doesn't begin with the materials, but rather the idea for the work and then decides to use and utilize a particular material to express that concept.
STAMBERG: An example: Shin found herself thinking about what it means to get older, our bodies, our dependencies. She put out a call for empty prescription medicine containers and got dozens of donors.
Ms. SHIN: Nursing homes in various communities, my parents' church group.
STAMBERG: She stacked the ordinary amber pill boxes into circular towers and lit the towers from beneath. Some hang from the ceiling like gorgeous chandeliers. Others sit on the floor: cognac-colored footlights. The work is called "Chemical Balance."
Jean Shin made more towers for a seven-foot-long piece called "Chance City." Again, donations of ordinary objects, used losing lottery tickets, $25,000 worth of them, stacked into houses of cards - no glue, no tape, just gravity holding the scratched off tickets in place. An imaginary sky scraper city full of chance and, Shin thinks, optimism.
Ms. SHIN: I feel like these are reflections of cities. Most people who move to cities experience a lot of hardship and work, not a lot of instant successes, so they learn the hard way what living in a city, what defying odds is all about.
STAMBERG: Risk is a part of it, pinning your hopes on possibilities.
Ms. SHIN: Picking up your life and moving to the city and giving it all you can, your dreams may change, transform. But somehow, I think all of us retain that memory of something that they really wanted to do, and against all odds, are able to succeed.
STAMBERG: If, like me, you love art that hangs on walls, preferably painted by Pierre Bonnard, Jean Shin's accumulated cast offs reassembled to make you think are a different powerful aesthetic full of new ideas.
The show "Common Threads" won't travel. It's only at the Smithsonian American Art Museum until July 26th.
I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News, Washington.
INSKEEP: In a way, it will travel, because photos and a video of Jean Shin's works are at npr.org.