Castaways & Cutouts

Materials for the Arts (MFTA), New York City’s radical experiment in creative reuse, is part orphanage, part archive, and always inspiring. Conceived in 1978 by New Yorker Angela Fremont, this simple idea, to offer castoff and excess art materials to NYC’s artists, educators, and non-profits for free, has since been adopted by the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, which now maintains MFTA’s 35,0000 warehouse in Long Island City, filled floor to ceiling with boxes of buttons, bolts of cloth, tubs of lace, crates of mannequin parts, shelves of fine-art monographs, and a whole roomful of excess paint.

Then, there are the true treasures: Past trips have borne witness to a pallet-full of Chinese imperial vase reproductions (Pottery-barn quality); a bumper crop of large, framed, original art (corporate, but good); and even a box of rare and discontinued Kiehl’s skin-care products (Search in vain for “Original Musk No. 1 Lotion”). Suffice to say, the orphaned and abandoned and eccentric have long found fortune among the metal shelves of MFTA.

Yet even by the high standards of MFTA junk, one remarkable donation managed to capture my eye on a recent visit — in the process, doing the same to my brain, my sense of history, and, ultimately, my heart. Having gone to complete some paperwork, I was walking through the warehouse when I noticed, crowded into a half-dozen of MFTA’s signature yellow plastic bins and shoved unceremoniously under a dusty collection of old and broken Christmas ornaments, a treasure trove of little pictures.

Culled from the pages of early 20th century books and magazines, and carefully hand-mounted on assorted squares of heavy, custom-cut card, these myriad little pictures offer up an encyclopedia of Victorian-era advertising and commercial imagery. There are literally thousands, no two alike.

From a small boy peddling Lard:

….to a forlorn woman promising safe compasses:

…to an academic 1916 disquisition on the virtues of Jell-O:

… the collection spans the turn of last century, extending into the pre-Depression years of the early 1920s, and offers a disorienting glimpse into early commercial advertising, from the dawn of that now-ubiquitous artform.

On the evidence given, ads back then were little more than random bits of text laid over colorful art:

And while no two images are the same, there are certain motifs and collections-within that stand out. See, for example, this pair of rather ugly babies (click to englarge):

Or this decidedly odd collection of girls with heads encumbered by various flowers:


Another series depicts what seems to be a wayward husband caught in flagrante delicto by a shrewish wife:

My personal favorite was an odd triptych illustrating young girls delighted by the hatching of various eggs — including the extremely-rare Rabbit Egg:

While some samples hint at a clear product or retailer, such as this 1892 card from “Bush and Bull Dry Goods”:

…most are far more obscure, offering scant context for their old-fashioned lithography. Take this scene of two children nervously considering a crock of quince:

…or this miserable bather and his witchy charge:

The whole collection is so richly selected, so clearly edited, so dense with comic relief, and so carefully laid out in such humble circumstances, that it begs the question: Where did it come from?

To that end, I turned to MFTA’s sunny Deputy Director, Tara Sansone. A bright-eyed, enthusiastic alumni of Socrates Sculpture Park, Tara was as smitten with the collection as I, and duly put me in touch with it’s donor, Nancy Stein.

A loquacious and animated retiree living on Long Island, Nancy had lived with this, her mother’s collection, for many years before choosing to donate it to MFTA on the advice of an Art Advisor friend. It turns out that Nancy’s mother, the aptly named Lily Magazine, was something of a decoupage enthusiast, who had once even owned her own store. “‘Lily Magazine’s Paper Emporium’ she called it,” Nancy tells me. “It was in Nyack; closed in the 80s. She ran it ‘til she couldn’t run it anymore.”

Lily had learned her trade in part from her husband, Harry Magazine, a Russian Jew who had fled the pogroms of the Ukraine in the early years of the 20th century, bound first for Argentina and, later, New York. Recalled by his daughter a restless and enterprising artistic spirit, Harry plied a self-directed trade creating first lampshades, and later, convex glass lamps, all inlaid with decoupage. Nancy recalls weekends spent cutting out elegant images from various gilded-spine hardcover books with tiny, curved manicure scissors —a seemingly destructive task she credits with planting the seeds of revolt for her own later career as fine-art conservationist.

Harry’s idiosyncratic business thrived, eventually supporting a showroom on 5th avenue, a maker-space in the East Village, and lamps and shade collections carried by such prestigious stores as Saks, B. Altman’s, and a long-lost boutique that Stein remembers simply as, “Bibi’s.”

Then, in the flush of the immediate post-war boom, Harry reached something of a pinnacle, as 6 of his decoupage lamps were purchased by first lady Bess Truman, for use in the White House. “My dad used to say it, and then I knew it because I saw them in an article in National Geographic,” Nancy recalls. “In my mind, they are still there, in the Rose Room – though to be honest, I have been almost afraid to try and track them down. I don’t know what became of them in the end.”

Harry died in 1953, when Nancy was a teenager. Her mother, Lilly, took his various decoupage collections (“Some of it is still in a box in my basement,” Nancy tells me), and creatively reused them to create cards, tiny artworks, and all manner of charming ephemera to stock in her Paper Emporium. The business proved viable enough for Lily to make a living, with enthusiasts from around the nation making the trek to her 12 by 40 foot shop, to comb through her collection of decoupage. “She had a wall of folders, by subject: Angles, Horses, Babies…People, “ Nancy recalls. “There was even a Rembrandt etching…which I sold.”

Lily passed away in 1993, and her cutouts ended up in Nancy’s basement, where it was duly ignored for a good 20 years. That the collection finally wound up at MFTA owes itself to an unpleasant experiment with a Art Appraiser, and a general disaffection for the chore of monetizing things in general. “My temperament is not that way,” Nancy explains, “and anyways, ,this stuff was not a commodity; it was a passion.”

And so, rather than put her mother’s wonderful cutouts out to bid, Nancy chose to donate them for a tax deduction, and the comfort of knowing that her Family’s legacy would live on. “I just want beaty in people’s lives,” she explains. “In the end, I just wanted people to use it–children and schools,especially–so I gave them to MFTA.”

And there this unique collection now lays, awaiting a commensurate third act. Nancy herself is quite happy with the arrangement: “I just want this stuff to be seen. I’ll be living through this artwork, like my mother, long after i’m gone.”

The Lily Magazine Collection is on the floor now at Materials forthe Arts. To join Materials for the Arts, see HERE.