Salvage Queen

Janet De Berge Lange, 59, grew up in Arizona -- a fact that's evident in her popular assemblage art, which often includes bits of old neon signs from Phoenix businesses or even a photo of Lange herself as a 6-year-old in cowgirl drag. She's survived the downtown art scene's various permutations, and remains one of a few local artists to make it big nationally, with work -- usually depicting the power of women, the shame of misogyny, and the beauty of the desert -- that shows in galleries around the country.

On being the queen of not-so-clean:
I'm known in art circles as the Grande Dame of Salvage. It's very clear, when you come to my studio, that I'm a woman out of control. But as an assemblage artist, I can't be any other way, because my studio is my palette. All those found objects -- I don't know what I'm going to need for any particular piece that I'm working on. You have to have a lot of tubes of paint, so to speak. It isn't as organized as I would like it to be, and I have to stop every now and then and do housekeeping.

One man's trash is sometimes still trash.
People know that I'm always collecting things for my assemblages, so I'll come to the studio and there'll be a bag of stuff by the door. People are always leaving things for me, sometimes with a note that says, "Thought you could use this junk in your art." And a lot of times I'll look at the stuff and think, "Now, why did this remind them of me?" Let's just say that a lot of stuff gets donated to thrift stores.

The ABC's of Barbie:
I started this series a while back called "The Alphabet Barbies." I didn't get very far because I don't have that many heads yet -- I needed 26 of those big Barbie hair-styling heads, and those are hard to come by if you're not buying them new. Each head represents a letter in the alphabet, and they're about Barbie as a role model for women. I'm depicting the things that her manufacturer decided to tell girls they could or couldn't be. She's surrounded by a list of career choices, so the B one reads "Bimbo? Yes. Bricklayer? No. Bleached? Yes. Biologist? No." Of course, I've been working on this series for so long now that Barbie has gotten more worldly. But she's still a symbol of limitation for girls.

On the Zen of quilting old coffee cans:
The quilts started out when I was playing around with some letters from the sign of the old Mehagian's furniture store over on Central -- just spelling out words with the letters from that sign. And I spelled out "Mug: See Girl Run in Fear." And there were four letters left that spelled out "heal." It became the catalyst for this series of quilts focusing on violence against women. The quilt is a symbol of comfort, of women's work, of nurturing, and of how women save things from our lives, like scraps of cloth to make into something else. So the two ideas just fit. They're all made out of metal tins that I've pounded flat, then I used templates to cut out the different pieces to make the quilts. The metal "fabric" is mounted on a wood frame, and the letters are mounted on top of it. Making them is really fun -- very Zen, very precise.

Who, me? Genuflect?
Because of all the religious statues I use in my work, everyone thinks I have this very deep relationship with the Catholic Church. But I don't! My grandmother was Catholic, but I wasn't raised with any religion. I only use religious artifacts as metaphors for something else. They're symbols of power for people who are devout or anti-religion and everything in between. You can't walk by them without getting some kind of response inside of yourself. Which of course is the point of all art, everywhere.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela