ELKTON — Liz Steele Coats doesn’t have a trash can in her art studio. She doesn’t need one.
Everything in her space has a purpose — or it can be repurposed. From tin cans and broken glass to old buttons and “random junk drawer stuff,” Coats will find a way to turn one person’s trash or unused items into an artistic treasure.
“I think that our culture has just gotten so used to discarding things and always needing the new, next, clean, pristine item,” she said. “We’ve just filled up our earth with trash. So much of it could be repurposed, or we could think ahead of time about the byproduct of what we’re using and be more conscientious of it.”
In an exhibition titled “Of the Terra Firma,” Coats will present some of her creations — including sterling silver and copper jewelry and mixed media mobiles — alongside paintings and prints by Irene Aspell from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 6, at The Palette & The Page. The First Friday event will also feature musician Em McKeever and authors Kevin I.J.A. Barnett Sr. and Lois Hoffman.
The Cecil County Arts Council will hold an opening reception for its “Cecil County Faces & Places” and “Not So Private” shows. Meanwhile, Cecil College’s Elkton Station will showcase work by Cecil College professor Carol White.
Almost 20 years ago, Coats started creating a mobile as part of a school project based on “upcycling,” the practice of creatively transforming waste materials and unwanted items into something new. She collected various bits and bobs and kept adding them onto a three-tiered mobile for the project.
Since then, Coats has been crafting copper mobiles — some shaped like hypnotic spirals, while others resemble uncoiled Slinky toys — which she adorns with brightly colored pendants, pieces of jewelry, and other dangling items.
Coats is always on the lookout for interesting objects she could use for one of her mobiles.
“I’m at the point now where I’m always working on several of them, so in my purse I always keep pliers and wire,” she said. “I’m always ready if I find some kind of fun seashell or fun button lying somewhere that I can make a component.”
Creating jewelry is “a different beast,” Coats said, as she tends to use mostly new materials. However, she still collects scrap silver from other projects, melts it down in a crucible, rolls it through a rolling mill and reuses it in her jewelry.
Over time, Coats accumulates various materials and sorts them by color into different jars. When she is ready to sit down and assemble a mobile, she pours out the items and selects her favorite pieces.
Coats credits sculptor Alexander Calder and mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar, the creator of the labyrinthine Magic Gardens in Philadelphia, as major inspirations for her work.
“[Calder] was kind of known as the inventor of the mobile and he just really inspired me a lot in terms of simplicity, balance and what it’s like to create a moving sculpture ... [Zagar] really inspired me just in terms of how to look at trash and what others perceive as junk in a new and creative way and find a way to use it,” she said.
Even after Coats has completed a mobile and sold it to a client, it’s still a living product in the sense that changes and additions can be made.
“I have clients who will call me a year, two years, three years later and they’ll say ‘My grandmother passed away and I inherited her jewelry and I want to add to my mobile.’ And so, I will come in and add selective pieces to their project.”
Although the circumstances may be saddening, Coats said she enjoys repurposing items once owned by a client’s loved one and transforming them into a sculpture that is a testament to that person’s legacy.
“Some of my favorite projects are when sadly someone might have a special person in their family or their life pass away and they want to find a way to memorialize that person,” she said. “I often get clients bringing me boxes of their old things, their old jewelry, their old keychains, house keys, things like that. Then, I get to make a giant sculpture that is about that person and it kind of tells their story.”
Mobiles are not the only way Coats knows how to tell a story.
With her husband being a pastor, Coats had the opportunity to start a free ballet class at the church for people who couldn’t afford to attend dance classes elsewhere.
Unlike regular ballet, which Coats said typically is danced to instrumental music, the dances in her church’s classes tell stories through music with liturgical lyrics.
Although she has since passed that dance instructor role on to another individual so she can focus on the many other hats she wears, Coats said liturgical dance and music have continued to influence the “fluidity and feminine curvature” of her art.
“Having that dance background, I was always attracted to things being very graceful and very smooth and interconnected as opposed to being disjointed and jagged,” she said, adding that she includes music notes in many of her sculptures and jewelry. “Most of my work, if you look at my sculptures, everything is very smooth. I’m very conscientious of any sculptures have to be perfect spirals.”
Coats creates her sculptures and jewelry, as well as hosts art workshops, through her company, A New Creation.
As an art instructor, Coats said she enjoys teaching her students and that she learns just as much from them as they do from her.
“It keeps me on my toes,” she said. “I learn a lot from my students. They come in with this excitement and willingness to take risks and try new things. It reminds me that I don’t always have to create for what I think the industry needs or what I think the clients are going to buy. It reminds me ‘OK, I can do art for art’s sake and not be constrained to selling.’”
Irene Aspell swore off painting in 1974 after taking a class at the Maryland Institute College of Art with an unsupportive college professor.
“I had a teacher who was incredibly difficult and incredibly discouraging,” she said. “This was freshman painting. I swore after that class that I would never paint again.”
Instead, Aspell found herself gravitating toward textile design. Although MICA did not have a major in that field at the time, the school allowed students to travel to other art schools to study there as long as they graduated from MICA.
So, Aspell spent two years at MICA and traveled to the Cleveland Institute of Art to study textile design there for a year and a half before returning to graduate from MICA in 1978.
Aspell isn’t the first in her family to work in textile making. Her mother, who was from Yorkshire, England, lived in a town with 11 textile mills. From the age of 11 through her late 20s, Aspell’s mother worked in several of them.
But her mother didn’t care for textile making and ran away to join the Women’s Royal Air Force, or the WRAF. There, she met Aspell’s father, who was part of the Army Air Corp, in London during the Blitz in World War II.
After graduating from MICA, Aspell designed yardage at a textile company, as well as created her own designs.
But more than two decades after her negative experience in the freshman painting class, Aspell found herself called back to the medium.
“It took easily 25 years before I picked up a brush,” she said.
Aspell was living in New Jersey at the time with her husband and daughter. Her daughter loved horses and Aspell ran a boarding operation.
One young woman who kept her horse there expressed that she wanted to take an art class but was too nervous to do it alone. Knowing Aspell had an art degree, the woman asked her if she would go with her.
Aspell agreed, thinking she would just be tagging along for moral support. But at the former Somerset Art Association, which is now called The Center for Contemporary Art, Aspell found the encouragement for painting she had missed out on all those years ago in college.
“It was a very small, grassroots art center that just happened to have some really great instructors … I took a class with an older gentleman who was incredibly patient and could bring out the best in his students,” she said. “It was a fluke that I took the class, but I really enjoyed it and ever since that time I’ve wanted to paint again.”
Later, Aspell found herself merging that newfound passion with her love of print.
“I wanted to find a way to rework an image, think about it a little differently, maybe a little more abstractly,” said Aspell, who now turns some of her paintings into prints.
In addition to making art, Aspell also worked as a professional grower and gardener for many years until retiring in 2018. Now, she keeps a large garden at her house and volunteers at Adkins Arboretum in Ridgley and Priapi Gardens in Cecilton.
While working for florists, an organic tomato farm, a private family and other employers, Aspell took photos of the plants she grew.
“I sort of feel like my whole working career has been about stockpiling images for when I have more time to do something with them … It was about five years ago I started thinking ‘I should do something with those.’”
So, she started painting images of heirloom tomatoes, heritage breed chickens and other nature photos she took, often turning those paintings into prints.
“It’s been a real blast, and it’s been very interesting finding my audience,” she said.
While her painting style differs from them, Aspell said she finds herself inspired by the colors used by Vincent van Gogh and Eugène Henri Paul Gauguin.
As she presents her work at the First Friday show, Aspell hopes to expand her audience base.
“I’m hoping that based on my subject matter that there are a lot of gardeners and growers and vegetable enthusiasts and chicken lovers that would be interested in what I paint … I’ve been looking for a larger audience or for a different audience for the work, so that’s what I hope to accomplish by having a show in Elkton and finding other people that are attracted to these images and want to take one home,” she said.
Aspell’s husband is a potter and they have a show together every other year in October at a private school in New Jersey, so she said she is used to showing alongside another artist.
Aspell said Coats’ copper mobiles, with their colorful stones and jewels, will complement her natural paintings and prints.
“I think they will be sympathetic to one another in terms of color and shape,” she said. “I’m curious to see the work together.”
Coats encouraged folks to come out to the First Friday show to support local artists.
“I think if we’re not supporting our local artists, we’re giving into the bigger system that is not keeping beauty and aesthetics alive,” she said.