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).
"This is called 'Serpent in the Garden,'" he says, pointing one out, "after Adam and Eve." There are the requisite shells, some intricate black-and-white weaving, and a large feather sticking out.
Ivy highlights another.
"This is called 'Lucky,' because it reminds me of a leprechaun. It's abstract. I should have put some green in it."
You know, it is abstract.
"This is called 'Blood,'" he states of a Rorschach-looking shape of shelled webbing that is, indeed, red.
And then we have . . .
"This piece right here is called 'Sex on the Beach,'" intones the sentimental curator. They don't call abstract art abstract for nothing, but Ivy is more than willing to explain it to me. "If you look up under here, you'll know what I'm talking about," he says as we crane our necks. "This is the penis and that's the pussy. You understand what I'm saying?"
Very much so.
"When I originally made this, I dedicated it to Jonathan Livingston Seagull."
One piece really stands out. "Manique," it is called, which Ivy claims is Peruvian for "gateway" or "doorway." The aliens took a special interest in "Manique."
"When I was working on that, I have seen beams fly into my house, stop right in front of that and disappear," he says. I suggest perhaps those were headlights.
"That wasn't no headlight," Ivy emphasizes, "I'm talking about small circles of light. Very bright. But that didn't shock me. I'm pretty open-minded."
He has to be, after what's happened to him in bed.
"In my dreams, I have been to other planets," he explains. "I've been to Saturn. And I have seen aliens. I've seen spaceships and stuff, up in Yarnell. The aliens, they're in another dimension. It's only when they want us to see them that they come to the plane that we're on now, but they're constantly here. On Tuesday nights and Thursday nights, they're real active."
This may sound odd to you, but I believe in Sun Ra. So let's keep going.
"Human beings have to keep evolving. And when mankind does evolve, the aliens will be glad to meet us, they'll be very glad to meet us. A lot of them, right now they're not too happy with us because they're afraid of us. That's why they don't make themselves plain."
There's a work-in-progress in Keith Leonard Ivy's apartment right now. It is to be a hummingbird. At the moment, it appears to be an antler, parts of which are covered with a finely woven material hanging on a thin wire in his breakfast nook. Beneath it are plastic food containers full of shells. Sade sings on the tape player as Ivy speaks.
"I'll hang the naked piece up and walk by and look at it, walk by and look at it, walk by and look at it, then slap myself in the brain a couple times and say, 'It's time for you to get busy.'"
And the shells provide unsolicited guidance.
"Sometimes they'll talk to me, the shells will say, 'Put me in, put me in!' What it all boils down to is being in touch."
Ivy and his work may never be in touch with gallery owners (he says Scottsdale art houses have given him the brush-off) or the public, but let it be said that Mr. Ivy is in touch with something. The sea. The Earth. Aliens. Good intentions. His own greater force, certainly, whatever that may be.
And whatever it is, I like it. And him.
"When I first moved out here, I was hanging out with some Navajos," Ivy recalls, "and this one guy, they said he was crazy, but he looked at me and said, 'You're The One Who Sees Underwater.' He gave me that name. He didn't know what type of artwork I did or anything about me. But I really liked that."
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