A California Sculptor Gives Plain Old Lint a New Spin

updated 10/20/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/20/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In the laundry room of her Long Beach, Calif. home, Slater Barron, 56, pulls the lint trap from the top of her dryer and inspects the fuzzy residue of her wash with the keen eye of an artist. "Isn't it lovely," she says softly. "This muted gray-green is perfect." Minutes earlier, a guest had slopped food on a place mat. "Don't worry," Barron had said. "Now I'll have to wash it, so you're contributing to my art." It may sound as if Barron has been watching the spin cycle a bit too long, but in fact she's the world's foremost—most likely the world's only—artist working in lint. All told, she has gone from dryer to gallery more than 60 times with her portraits and sculptures, most of them covered with a fat coat of the puffy stuff. She has created a lint wedding cake, lint candies and lint murals, and her dried fluff has been shown in museums from New York to L.A. Recently Barron shipped more than 100 of her creations for a one-woman exhibit, her twelfth, at Arizona State University at Tempe, where they will sell for up to $2,000 apiece. Clearly, her work is not to be sneezed at.

"There's no denying the humor," admits Barron, who teaches art at two area colleges. "In the beginning I was put off when people talked about belly button lint. Now I realize they were just trying to make some connection with it." Art critics, who are largely shock-resistant these days, have been enthusiastic; David S. Rubin wrote in Art in America that Barron "sensitively orchestrates lint's soft colors."

Many of the works by this Laundromat Leonardo are, as one might expect, whimsical: "The Magic Laundry Room," which is 30 feet long, includes a washer and dryer made of lint stuck on a wooden frame, as well as lint elves. But not all are light-hearted. "The Six O'Clock News" deals with her parents' quiet struggle with Alzheimer's disease: In a life-size lint living room, two lint figures sit on a lint sofa, the father slumped over, the mother watching TV and eating chocolates. "My scenes are very gentle," says Barron. "They lead you in, then make you aware that there is something diabolical going on."

Barron was already a painter when the notion of working in lint came to her in 1974, a year before her divorce. "The four children were teenagers, and you know how often teenagers change their clothes," she says. "I was running my feet off working for the dryer. I decided the dryer should be working for me." She began modestly, with small abstract forms mounted inside Plexiglas, and soon neighbors were saving their lint for her. Now even that isn't enough: When she runs low, she puts out an SOS and her art students raid their dorm dryers.

Born in East Orange, N.J. to a former Broadway dancer and a poultry-market owner, Barron graduated from Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania with a degree in sociology and then spent two and a half years as a line officer in the Navy, where she met her husband, a Marine. She took up painting in 1962, and cottoned to lint when she spotted a lovely turquoise wad in her dryer. "That was Janet's jumper," she recalls. Although now recognized critically, Barron is proudest of the influence she has had on her acquaintances. "People now think of me," she says, "when they look at their lint."

From Our Partners