LIANE HANSEN, host:
When artist Robert Fontenot heard the Los Angeles County Museum was auctioning of part of its Costume and Textile Collection earlier this year, he grabbed his coat and his wallet. Since then, armed with scissors, some thread and a needle, Fontenot is breaking down the items he bought and finding new ways to use them.
Reporter Vanessa Romo walked through his studio as he talked about his collection.
VANESSA ROMO: Artist Robert Fontenot had no idea what he was about to buy. He only knew two things. One: it was up for auction by Los Angeles County Museum of Art as part of their Costume and Textile Collection. And Two: no one else seemed want it.
Mr. ROBERT FONTENOT (Artist): So there were all these lots that were going by. And I was like, oh, my God. I could've bought that. That was like - like some that didn't sell and some that went really cheaply, and I - so no one bid on one lot. I was, like, I don't even know what that is, I'll take that.
ROMO: So for just $20, Fontenot became the proud owner of the mystery lot.
Mr. FONTENOT: And it ended up being John Anthony coats.
ROMO: He designed dresses for Jackie Kennedy Onassis.
Mr. FONTENOT: A Galanos coat.
ROMO: That's James Galanos who's most famous client is Nancy Reagan. And there was a Claire McCardell.
Mr. FONTENOT: The Clairemont McCardell dress.
ROMO: Fontenot took his bargain buy back to his house in Inglewood, California, where he lives with his partner. The neighborhood is not exactly a hotbed of Modern Art, but then Fontenot doesn't like running in those circles anyway. Born and raised in what he calls a very southern way in Mobile, Alabama, he studied photography at the Rhode Island School of Design.
But over the years he's moved towards sculpture and textile design. After more than two decades as an artist, he's had several gallery shows in New York and L.A.
Mr. FONTENOT: This is my studio. It's not usually quite this cluttered.
ROMO: The auction purchase may have seemed impulsive but it was part of a larger plan. Fontenot's working on a new series he's calling Recycle LACMA. LACMA as in Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In all, he's acquired a little more than 50 pieces from LACMA's costume and textile collection, and he's painstakingly deconstructing every garment to create something new.
Mr. FONTENOT: Part of the idea was, all right, LACMA had these items. Some of them weren't in good shape, some of them, obviously, they had better samples of, they weren't going to use them. Well, in my mind is sort of like a ship. You don't want to just throw something over when it's useless if there's another way it can be used."
ROMO: He takes each piece - pieces once carefully collected and catalogued by the museum - and he gives them a second life as useful art, or what he calls practical sculptures.
Mr. FONTENOT: You know, partially it's getting over the assumption that you can't make something. We're trained to think that things are difficult to make. And a lot of things aren't.
ROMO: So, a pair of corduroy 1920s knickerbockers becomes a pair of plush boxing gloves, and a silk brocade dress transforms into an umbrella.
Mr. FONTENOT: In my mind, it's the sort of thing that the woman who wore the gown could have also had the umbrella with her in some horribly matchy, matchy world.
ROMO: And remember the Galanos coat - that became a car seat cover.
Mr. FONTENOT: There was just something about that big floral pattern, and all the black fabric that it was lined with that really reminded me of, well, of those cheap car seat covers you can buy, usually big Hawaiian print, that I could make just a really sort of nice, wonderful version of that.
ROMO: Fontenot is chronicling every step of this project on his blog, where he also addresses the contentious issue of de-accessioning. That's a fancy word museums use when they sell or unload unwanted pieces.
Mr. FONTENOT: I've learned that there is a widespread misconception that because something was in a museum, it's museum quality. Which, as you can see, from some of these items, is just not true.
ROMO: He certainly isn't the first artist to shine a spotlight on a museum's leftover collection. In 1970, Andy Warhol's Raiding the Icebox exhibit displayed a museum's collection of chairs. But Rita Gonzales, curator of contemporary art for LACMA says Fontenot's work goes beyond that. Speaking from Europe, where she's on a courier trip for the museum, she says there's a poetic aspect to his work.
Ms. RITA GONZALEZ (Curator of Contemporary Art, LACMA): This idea of recycling and how to think of artists, the work of the artists ultimately as a job of recycling — recycling culture, recycling metaphors, recycling history. So, that, I think, is the most poignant thing about his project.
ROMO: For Fontenot the entire life-cycle of art — from its initial inspiration to the creation to the acquisition of it, even to its disposal — is very Zen, very "Lion King," very circle of life. And captivated as he is by the theme of recycling, there's really only one place he'd like to see his final collection…
Mr. FONTENOT: I long ago had to give up the idea that I could control what happened to my pieces. But the dream owner of everything would be LACMA, again.
ROMO: For NPR News, I'm Vanessa Romo.