Ivy Covered Limbs

I would never argue that macrame is the most exciting of art forms. Or that buckets of bleached seashells are something to get excited about. Or that slabs of driftwood should take your breath away.

That is, I would never have argued in favor of twine, shells and wood until I talked to Keith Leonard Ivy, mild-mannered Department of Revenue employee. Keith Leonard Ivy, who--with the possible exceptions of the ocean, his fiancee and Heineken--loves macrame, seashells and driftwood more than anything on Earth. Keith Leonard Ivy, who comes home from his boring job in the landlocked state of Arizona and dives headfirst into seashells and driftwood and macrame and produces strange, chaotic objects.

Objects that, for some reason, I like.
They are things that look like they might be growing. Things that look like they should be underwater. They are twisted, woven forms that hang down from curvaceous wooden limbs and polished antlers, encrusted with the shells Keith Leonard Ivy so dearly loves.

"Sometimes, I'd rather not eat and spend my money on shells," he says quietly. "I'll spend my last money on shells."

I called up Ivy on the phone. He was soft-spoken, polite and sincere. I went to visit Ivy. He was soft-spoken, polite and sincere as he told me about:

The aliens from Saturn who visit his dreams and inform him about global race relations and potential pollution catastrophes.

The pieces of wood and shells he uses and how they literally talk to him, begging to be used in his art.

His love for Heineken.
"I love Heineken," he told me.
So do I. There you go, and there I went.

Ivy doesn't incorporate into his work just any old plank of wood that happens to drift by, or pick up random clam shells cast off from seafood restaurants. His chosen articles make themselves known to him in no uncertain terms.

"A lot of times, I'll see something like a shell, or something like that, and it'll talk to me," he admits, gesturing to one of his pieces. "Sometimes, like that piece of wood that's in 'Sidewinder'--it looks like a snake--that piece of wood was talking to me one day. I hope you don't think I'm crazy, but it was telling me, 'Pick me up, take me home, make something out of me.'

"It's not that I'm weird or strange or nothing like that; I'm just well-connected with nature."

And what appears to be a normal, mundane object to regular people is, to him, something wholly other.

"I got a piece of wood that looks like an old-time crutch," Ivy offers softly. "Some might see a crutch, but I see a giant butterfly."

It's all part of his artistic statement that includes respect for and preservation of Mother Earth, appreciation of nature and improved relations among all of mankind regardless of race, creed or color.

"We can't be thinking about this," he cautions, pinching the skin on his left forearm. "We've all got to get along."

Don't worry, we'll get to the aliens in a minute.

Once upon a time, at Cherry Hill East High School in New Jersey, Ivy had an art teacher. She didn't like his stuff.

"This art teacher told me, 'You'll never be an artist.' . . . But when somebody tells you something negative, as long as you believe in God, and you believe in yourself, don't even listen to 'em. I didn't let it bother me," he says. "It's like Frederick Douglass said, 'If there is no struggle, there is no progress.'"

Art class was definitely a struggle for this man. And even macrame proved an elusive master.

"Believe it or not, those basket hangings for plants, I couldn't make them," Ivy owns up. "I would sit down and try and do it, and it would never turn out right. So I decided to just go with the flow."

That flow began on the path to a major financial depository.
"I found this piece of wood in Cherry Hill on the way to the bank with my mother in 1974, and I looked at this piece of wood, and my mother asked me what I was going to do with it. I told her, 'Someday I'm going to make something of it.' Eventually, I did."

And so began his obsession with weaving shells onto driftwood and occasionally antlers. It's an obsession that's resulted in some 80 completed pieces. None of them has ever sold or been in the gallery spotlight.

I still like them.

Ivy's apartment smells like fish.
Not because he's trying to put across a subliminal olfactory suggestion, but because his fiancee Phillis is cooking dinner.

Fact is, you don't need the odor of frying cod or halibut or red snapper or whatever it is to achieve a briny atmosphere in here; that's easily accomplished by the tenant's crustacean-swathed work, which hangs all over the place.

Now, Ivy takes us on a tour of his art; bizarre, evocative stuff that somehow fits right in with the tasteful pastel couches and enormous pillows, portraits of famous Native Americans, and the framed jigsaw puzzle of the Grand Canyon that, he claims, bears the faces of Jesus and an alien (if you look at it right).

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