There she was—knee deep in trash, picking over the discarded remains of other people's lives, transfixed by the processes of art and creation.
"When the job came up I thought, 'Wow that's a dream come true, hang out at the dump all day long and take home anything I want!'" says Art Professor Kris Patzlaff about her experience designing a recycled art installation at the Humboldt Waste Management Authority Transfer Station and Recycling Center in Eureka.
Kris's dream job materialized in 2000 after she responded to a request for proposals from the Waste Management Authority for an art project to be installed on the site's perimeter fence. Her proposal was selected and she spent the next two years of her life sifting through trash, organizing it and turning it into art. Kris says the experience was marked with intriguing discoveries along the way.
"I did a series of pieces that I called the 'Voyeur Series' during my time working on the fence. People would throw away parts of people's lives. It was really intriguing and I would get drawn into it. I can remember this one day, there was this green satin box and inside were all these old photographs and little programs from funerals listing the pallbearers and other mementos. So, I brought it home and ended up sitting in the yard for four hours just looking at this stuff and trying to figure out: Who was this person? Why did someone just throw away their life? I used the materials I found to create assemblages guiding the viewer into a similar inquiry."
After countless trips to the dump, daylong work sessions on a mock fence at her home in Trinidad, Calif. and hundreds of hours of inspired artistic expression, the project was completed in 2002.
Kris's piece at the transfer station and recycling center, which can be viewed at 1059 West Hawthorne Street in Eureka, is unique for the artist as jewelry is her primary medium. As a child, Kris displayed an early interest in art and specifically jewelry-making.
"I made my first jewelry watching Casper the Friendly Ghost cartoons, I was probably about eight," Kris says. "My dad was a jewelry and gem wholesaler and we used to glue these tiny tumbled rocks onto bracelets. I had my first booth at a fair when I was 12."
At age 17 Kris's dad gave her a box of tools. She retreated to the basement with a plumbing torch to solder metal and teach herself how to make jewelry. By the time she was 19 she owned her own jewelry store in her home state of Connecticut and also sold her work at arts and craft fairs in the region.
At 23, while vacationing with a friend in California, she met art instructor Linda Watson at Cabrillo Community College in Santa Cruz who inspired her to drop everything, move to California and study jewelry and metalsmithing. After a year and a half of working with Linda, Kris came to Humboldt State and finished her bachelor's degree in art. She left the area to earn her master's degree from the University of Southern Illinois, which has a strong art program with a focus on metals and sculpture. Three years after graduation, Kris returned to Humboldt County and started selling pieces created in her studio. She became a part of the Humboldt State faculty seven years ago.
Kris stresses the fundamentals when teaching and directs her advanced students down the right artistic path. She still creates her unique jewelry pieces; her work has sold for as much as $8,000 and been purchased by jewelry collectors and celebrities like comedian Robin Williams. She serves as president of the Society of North American Goldsmiths, the professional organization for artists, designers, jewelers and metalsmiths with more than 3,000 members, and enjoys gardening when not teaching or making art.