For years, Clint Chadsey delivered bags of letters as a carrier for the Postal Service.
Now retired, the Melrose resident places different kinds of letters into old wooden boxes to form intricate “art in a box.’’ Using bits and pieces of “just about anything that’s caught my eye“ at yard sales, flea markets, or antique shows, Chadsey creates complex, surrealistic art known as box art or assemblage.
Chadsey is a fan of Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), a master assemblage artist, considered to be a pioneer in the field. “He’s the patron saint of assemblage, as far as I’m concerned,” Chadsey said.
Scrabble game tiles, jewelry letter beads, and calligraphy all find their way into Chadsey’s shadow-box art, along with baseball cards, costume jewelry, Christmas ornaments, old photos, clock faces, newspaper and magazine clippings, and other bits and pieces.
Chadsey, who is self-taught, made collages and decorated boxes more as a hobby for about 10 years, then got “more serious in the last 20 years,” he said. “I decided to take it in another direction and say something artistically, rather than just [make] decoration,” he said.
He doesn’t do much to promote or market his work. “I like to do the art,” he said. “I hate the business side of it. I can’t do both.” Still, word has spread over the years through his exhibitions at libraries, art shows, and galleries.
“I was commissioned to do a piece for former Suffolk district attorney Ralph Martin, who was retiring, and I did a 4-foot-tall box for a couple in New Jersey celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. It was the biggest piece I ever did.”
Constructing the deceptively simple boxes often takes hours. Chadsey strategically places groupings of objects within vintage containers — a cigar box, a drawer, a printer’s type box — to tell a story, capture a sentiment, or convey a message, whether political, romantic, historical, humorous, or “downright bizarre,“ he said.
His works can evoke a wide range of emotions, from nostalgia, laughter, and sadness, to shock, anger, even tears.
Chadsey’s work was on view at Abbot Library in Marblehead this month. Library director and gallery curator Patti Rogers said she was immediately interested when the artist approached her about the show. She was eager to bring this unusual art form to her patrons.
“I understood his source. I love Joseph Cornell, and have since childhood,” said Rogers.
“Box assemblage is magical. It’s a way to take familiar objects and put them in a mixed way,’’ she said. “What’s interesting is the objects are recognizable, whether three-dimensional objects, or cut from magazines, or contextual. What happens in your mind is that you recognize the identity of objects within the box — a feather, a button, a photo — on a cognitive level. But then it gets superseded by seeing the total piece.
“You recognize the objects, but then there’s something new, in a visual aspect,” she said. “Your intellectual habit is to label, but you have to let go. It’s sort of ‘trippy.’ In the end, what you get is not intellectual, but emotional, like poetry.”
Chadsey works in both assemblage, which is three dimensional, and collage, which is flat. He creates box art for a while, then surrealistic collages in black and white or with postcards. He also builds small collages inside CD jewel cases.
Just about anything can inspire him.
“I see a photo, or other artwork, and, somehow, in my head, it becomes something else,” he says. “Ideas come to me in the middle of the night. I write a note and throw it in a drawer. I want to get to work right away, but I don’t, and it fades.”
In “Your Dad’s Sox,’’ baseball cards of memorable Red Sox players — Dom DiMaggio, Jimmy Piersall, Harry Agganis, Babe Ruth, Jim Rice, Wade Boggs, Carlton Fisk, and Carl Yastrzemski — are interspersed with old ticket stubs: one to a Red Sox-Seattle Mariners game dated Aug. 25, 1996, at $14 for a box seat; another for a game against the Kansas City Royals on July 19, 2006, that cost $45; near it, a miniature copy of a grandstand seat ticket to Game 4 of the 1946 World Series at Fenway Park, priced at $6 — noting $5 for the game, and $1 for tax.
Scrabble tiles spell out the title, a common technique of Chadsey’s.
“Valentine” shows a century-old photo of a young boy and girl, her arm around his shoulder. There are red hearts, and the words “valentine“ “be” and “mine” in various letter forms.
“Palin Prompter” is a shoebox-sized case that references an incident where former Alaskan governor and 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin apparently wrote speech notes on her hand. A photo of Palin rests above an upright mannequin’s hand with four words etched in black marker on the palm: “God, guns, maverik, and You Betcha.’’
“The Wanderer” depicts a midlife crisis through a combination of a spine from the book “Wayward Man,’’ a miniature Kahlua bottle, a die bearing the word “work,” dated photos, a compass, an old watch face, and a portion of a $20 bill.
In “Martha Stewart,” there’s a photo of the home decor icon and a daily craft calendar with “Make a candle out of ex-husband’s head’’ retyped over the original idea for day 21, along with a doll’s hand holding a male doll’s head, a candle wick glued on top.
Chadsey said he is not surprised by the appeal of his assemblage art.
“I’m the only one doing it,” he said. “You can go to art shows, and they’ll be five oil painters, 12 jewelry makers, etc., and me. It’s not run of the mill. It mixes things up. For the most part, it appeals to all ages.”
Many of his pieces are for sale, most costing $100 to $300. CD case collages are $25.
“This is such a different type of medium for people to become exposed to,” Rogers said. “I think his work [speaks] for itself.”
Kathy Shiels Tully can be reached at kathyshielstully@ gmail.com.