Gary Carlson’s (Lost and) Found Art

Geneva artist Gary Carlson’s professional reputation should grow significantly when his eclectic found object art is featured in the Whimsical Art Trail Exhibit at the National Museum of Play at the Strong in Rochester. The exhibit, which runs from February 19 through May 22, includes Carlson’s work and two other local artists in an imaginative, family-friendly art display scattered throughout the museum.

While Carlson doesn’t consider this to be his first big break, he does concede it is the most important one to date and one he is most excited about. “I consider the opportunity to exhibit at the Strong a validation of my work,” he said.

Found object art is an apt description of Carlson’s unconventional creations. “Gary’s artwork is playful and surprising,” said Corrie M. Kraai, director of public programs at the Strong. Carlson has made elaborate art pieces from diverse objects since he was a child. He procured an abundant supply of items from his father, a bus station cashier who also ran the station’s lost and found. “The volume of (unclaimed) stuff that people leave behind on a bus is almost unbelievable,” he explains on his website,

Although Carlson is originally from Minneapolis, he, his wife Anita and their daughters moved to New York when they purchased a vineyard south of Penn Yan in 1978. Previous machine shop experience he acquired before growing grapes and raising children helped Carlson to fashion cohesive art out of disparate bits and pieces. His impressive 43-inch-high piece, Vulture, uses a softball, plastic jug handle, a “scrunchie,” sink trap, trash can, suit coat sleeves, leather gloves, fake fingernails and much more.

In 1985, the family grape business began to wane. The couple sold the vineyard and bought a bar in Geneva. The newly re-named Side Show Bar offered an unexpected space to showcase Carlson’s work – in the bar’s basement. When he is not too busy behind the bar, he is happy to lead bar patrons on a tour of what he calls The Side Show Metropolitan Museum. An emotional attachment to his growing collection makes him reluctant to consider offers from potential collectors. He hopes, however, to get over this hurdle and sell some of his work when the Strong exhibit concludes.

Five Carlson pieces, including the Vulture, will be at the Strong along with selected works from Raphaela McCormack and Meredith Schreiber. Carlson is still pinching himself. He says that although he feels worthy to be part of the Whimsical Art Trail he deadpans, “I labored in semi-obscurity for so long I didn’t think I had the credentials.”

by Nancy E. McCarthy

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