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|JULES VITALI: STYROGAMI ARTIST
He's Serving Up Art One Cupful At a Time
Jules Vitali is an artist working in a medium that nobody ever knew was a medium until he revealed to the world its unexpected power and versatility. Jules creates art out of Styrofoam (polystyrene) cups. Try to imagine a Styrofoam cup cut into pieces, which are then reassembled without glue or fasteners of any kind into a breathtaking work of art. Can you picture that in your mind? (I didn’t think so.)
Given the limitations of his chosen medium, Jules is able to create works of almost unbelievable beauty and charm. I’m an artist myself, but when I look at his work I can’t imagine what sources of creativity he is drawing upon that enables him to convert what might possibly be the most mundane objects in our entire culture into objets d’art that often look like echoes from some exquisite dream. Jules doesn’t simply do that once in a while; he has created over 3,000 of these pieces. Like snowflakes, each is amazing, and yet each differs from all the others that went before.
Whittling His Way into Art
Jules told me that he stumbled into his art as a by-product of boring meetings that he was forced to attend in a 9 to 5 job as a graphic designer with the Polaroid Corporation. After finishing his coffee in those meetings, he began tearing apart the Styrofoam cups that it had been served in. He tore those first cups into strips like pealing an orange and then tried to reassemble the pieces into some imaginative shape.
Jules soon started carrying a small jackknife and began turning out miniature fantasies with clean spirals, loops, and edges. Jules continued honing his craft through meeting after boring meeting and through cup after cup of coffee. Preoccupation grew into passion as his Styrofoam cup creations began to take on artistic value.
Jules’ small creations soon became too beautiful to throw away. He said that a fellow-worker at Polaroid once bought one of his early creations for $2.50. It was the last sale Jules was to make for over a decade. When he moved to Freeport, Maine in 1996, he took along shopping bags holding about 500 pieces of his art.
t finally dawned on Jules that he was in the process of creating a totally new art form, to which he gave the imaginative name “Styrogami,” which obviously identifies the art form as a subset (which he himself refers to as an “artistic bastardization”) of “origami” paper art limited to the use of “Styrofoam” cups.
After being laid off from Polaroid in 2000, Jules decided to elevate his passion to profession and began promoting his handiwork. “Part of my toil in life is convincing people that this is indeed art,” Jules said.
“But Is it Art?”
In an article about Jules’ art in an NPR 2003 “Weekend Edition,” the commentator made an extremely accurate observation, “If the definition of a true artist is someone who helps others see beauty in the mundane, then Jules Vitali fits the bill.” It’s difficult to imagine an artist or an art form that fits the “beauty in the mundane” definition more precisely than Jules’ Styrogami does.
It requires a lot of imagination to create a space for oneself in the world of art while working only with Styrofoam cups but, fortunately, Jules has a lot of imagination. He fashions most of his creations from a single 8-ounce cup. Each piece requires anywhere from 20 minutes to eight hours. Most of the finished works remain in Styrofoam white, but Jules paints some of them with acrylic paint. He has even had a few of them rendered in bronze.
Jules is unapologetic about using Styrofoam cups as the medium of choice for his art. “I can say as much with a discarded, coffee stained vessel,” he said, “as anyone can with oil and canvas.” His art incorporates structures that define and enclose space in curious and unpredictable ways. It includes unique interplay between positive and negative spaces, and a wonderful — even stunning — elevation of the medium.
All of Jules’s Styrogami creations are abstract representations of fanciful interlocking forms. The resulting sculptures can resemble anything from a dreamy spacecraft to an imploded orange. In many cases the objects retain enough of their original Styrofoam shape that the viewer can see what they were made from. The titles he gives to the pieces are sometimes as imaginative as the pieces themselves, with such enigmatic but descriptive names as “Blue Speckled Aphrodite,” “The Lost Homonym,” “Transopter,” and “Slapstick Contemplation.”
Jules continues to push the boundaries of his medium. He is creating art from Styrofoam cups used by notable people while they are having a conversation with him. For example, Jules recently made the six-hour trip to New York City to spend 15 minutes with Ultraviolet, who wrote Famous for 15 Minutes, Andy Warhol’s most notable biography. Jules and Ultraviolet had a cup of coffee together and then Jules drove back to his home in Maine, of course taking with him the cup Ultraviolet had used and then autographed, which he transformed into a lovely piece of art. As part of his commitment to the context of his art, Jules said that he limited his time with Ultraviolet to the 15 minutes that she had spoken of in her book.
Jules used 200 of these cups-with-a-history someday in creating a large conglomerate piece that he named “Sea Foam 2025.”
Jules recently received in the mail a Styrofoam cup that a man sent to him as the last artifact on earth that his wife had touched before she died. The man wanted to memorialize his beloved wife’s last moments by commissioning Jules to create one of his Styrogami pieces out of that final object. Jules was very moved by the opportunity of creating such a thing.
Art for the Planet’s Sake
His art is the foreground of Jules’ passions as an artist. The background is his concern for the environment. Along with his growing Styrogami experience, Jules developed his art as a values-rich endeavor. Styrofoam cups are disposable but, unfortunately, are not degradable. Throw one in a landfill today, and 200 years from now your grandchild, 12 generations removed, could dig it up. These things are petroleum based and therefore a pollutant.
Jules conceived of his work as a metaphorical reaction to the damage we’re doing to the environment. A Styrofoam cup is a symbol of western technology. Billions of these things are thrown into American landfills every year. But Jules saves a few of them from that fate and, through his art, transforms them into valuable objects that nobody will ever throw out. “We’re doing millions of bad things to our environment,” Jules said, “I’m doing a few hundred good things.” He refers to Styrogami as “a delicate art with a dire message.”
Jules considers his Styrogami movement to be his Quixotic tilt against the windmills of the environmental destruction that he imagines modern civilization to be visiting upon our planet. His official pronouncement on the topic ends with the gloomy observation that “Styrogami is … something metaphorically exquisite to admire as we walk this path to the gallows.”
Jules expressed his concern for the environment in a bleak little poem:
Does it matter how we got this way?
It doesn’t seem to.
Am I going to change it?
Is there anybody out there?
Is there anybody out there?
As part of his environmental commitment, Jules never buys new cups for his artwork. Getting laid off by Polaroid cut Jules off from the torpid meetings that had provided his artistic media, so he began gathering discarded cups at parties and other social functions he attended. Jules has incorporated the fact of his media coming from “found” cups as a feature of the art itself.
Many of his creations still retain their coffee stains or road dirt. Evidences of their history help maintain Jules’ position that “Styrogami is an art of expression, not one of perfection.” Another symbol of his commitment to the environment is that he always uses the entire cup so there’s no shavings or residue to throw away.
Securing Permanence for Disposable Artifacts
Jules’ carries his determination to create non-disposable art out of disposable drinking cups to great extremes by offering a life-time guarantee for each fragile creation he sells. In cases of crushing damage, he completely recreates the piece.
A curious factoid about Jules is that he has created every one of his thousands of Styrogami pieces using the same 2-bladed Sears Craftsman jackknife that he brought to work with him to carve up the first cups in those boring meetings.
Jules wrote, “My wish is that … the observers of my art might be reminded or jolted into acting a little differently with regard to their fellow human beings, their planet, and their surroundings…. It’s not hard to see if one really opens ones eyes.”
Jules’ art and vision are gaining attention. His fascinating art has been featured in over 50 media articles, ranging from a report on CBS’s Osgood Files to a article in Yankee Magazine. His art has been exhibited in such notable venues as the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, The Chicago Center for Cultural Affairs in Chicago, and at the University of Southern Maine in Lewiston.
Jules is also getting samples of his art out to the public through a project called Artists in Cellophane, which is a box-of-art distribution system based upon coin-operated vending machines. These Art*o*mat machines are placed in many locations, beginning with New York’s prestigious Whitney Museum and ending most recently with a machine at the Rayko Photo Center, 428 Third Avenue, SF. The vending machines’ mechanicals mean that Jules must create miniature “sampler size” versions of his Styrogami pieces to fit inside a box the size of a pack of cigarettes. The small size means that Jules can make five to seven of his little creations out of a single cup.
And now Jules Vitali’s art is coming to Brentwood! His Styrogami art will be the feature subject for the next show, starting in May, at the Arts Commission Gallery, in the Business and Technology Center, at 101 Sand Creek Road. Come and meet the artist himself at a beverage and snacks reception, May 6, 6 to 9 p.m.
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