Press: Liza on collecting ephemera

2009 Interview with Liza Cowan about collecting ephemera. Published on the blog Ephemera.

Pine Street Art Works is Burlington, Vermont's only full time retail art gallery. Liza Cowan opened it in 2005. In it, she shows contemporary, mid-career artists--some local, some national. Liza quickly found that her small city couldn't support an art gallery, so she decided to diversify, selling mid- century pottery, furniture, and other things that she felt passionate about. "I have never accepted the formal distinction between fine art and popular art," she says, "so I incorporate vintage ephemera and items made from reproductions of images from my wonderful ephemera collections."

In the following interview we talk about the paths she's taken and her passion for ephemera.

Ephemera: How did you become interested in ephemera?

Cowan: I've loved ephemera since I was a kid in the early sixties. I started my collecting passion with old celluloid campaign buttons. My mother used to take me to antique stores and shows, and urged me to find one type of affordable antique to collect. The round smoothness of the early celluloid buttons captured my heart. And each button had a story to tell. Later, in the early seventies, I came across an old Jello recipe book at a yard sale and the images, printing and story again captured my heart. I spent the next few years scouring yard sales and ephemera shows for Jello images. This was way before the Internet and eBay.

I don't believe in cutting up old magazines or breaking up collections, so when I was looking for an affordable item to sell in my store, I thought it would be fun to use new printing technologies to circulate the images from my collections without having to sell or destroy the originals. For a while I just scanned them and blogged about them, but soon I decided to make prints to sell. I now offer vintage images from my ephemera collections as greeting cards and as fine art laminated digital prints. My main collecting areas are: Jello, early to mid 20th century kitchen images, Burlington made items like Wells & Richardson (diamond dyes,) needle packets & sewing ephemera and matchbox labels.

ephemera: What challenges do you face using ephemera in your work?

Cowan: There are two challenges in using ephemera. The first is copyright. I am mindful to use images that were published before 1925, but sometimes I don't actually know if there have been renewals on copyright. The US copyright laws are so complex that I'm a bit baffled. So I just try to be careful, and respectful. I also only make reprints from ephemera that are in my collection. You won't find me swiping images off Flickr or other sites.

The second challenge is educating my customer to the beauty and interest in old images. It pains me to discover, daily, that not all my customers are as thrilled as I am in the beauty and social history of ephemera. I take the time to show each customer what I see in the images. With my enlargements of seed packets, for example, I explain that the originals were done by stone lithography. I show them the individual dots: the marks of hand artistry that went into each small gem. With the Jello reprints I discuss not only the beauty of the image, but the history of fast food in the US, and the ways that the Jello advertisers incorporated contemporary technologies into their ultra modern product. The images that look so old fashioned to us, like a grocer on an old telephone, actually represented the newest fangled item of 1906. I ask customers to imagine the telephone as the newest version iPhone, and what that would say in an ad today. "We're modern, we're cutting edge, we're with it."

Ephemera: Tell me about some of your favorite items that you've made.

Cowan: My favorite items are always the last ones I've made. My excitement is fresh. Right now I'm in love with my large scale seed packet reproductions. I have reproduced them enlarged to about 15' x 24", and they are fine art laminated.  My greeting card collection is fresh, too. I make each card myself on my Epson NX400 printer, so I can keep making new ones without too much investment, and I can cull the ones that don't' sell.
One of the ways I use ephemera differently than many people is that I work a lot with details. I love to see what happens when a small portion of the item is isolated and enlarged, so you will often see details on my blog and in the reprints. My photography is often about small abstracted details of larger objects, so it's not a big stretch to see how I come to love the abstracted details of printed images. 

I'm always excited about seeing my ephemera images on Flashbags, which is a local Vermont company making handmade handbags and accessories. I work very closely with the two–woman company to make and sell bags that are both nostalgic and fresh. .

Ephemera: What resources do you recommend for artists and others interesting in working with ephemera?

Cowan: eBay is great, but you have to really have a good eye to get the best. Garage sales and yard sales can yield a lot, depending on where you live. Vermont isn't so great. I'm also lucky that now my customers bring me things because they know what I am looking for. My advice is always to spend a lot of time looking at art, refining your eye. Read history of the period you are collecting. Do internet research about ephemera collections. Do a lot of Google searches. If you can get to an ephemera shows, do so. Always cultivate your eye. There's a lot of dreck among the gold, and it's up to you to be able to discern what's worth looking at, and why.

Ephemera: Thank you, Liza.

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