creation story: Caryl Burtner, collector 

I don't care if people think it's art … You've got Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol - this is 2003 and this is an extension from their past.

Employment: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, administrative coordinator in curatorial department

Where you can see her work: In the group exhibition "Collected Evidence" at Artspace, 6 E. Broad St., through Feb. 2 and on her Web site, www.ideagirl.net

What she does? "A lot of my work stems from wanting to have an overview of my life," she explains. Burtner has made an art of documenting the minutia of her life. From a toothbrush collection, to baggies filled with friends' lipstick blots (a work that was purchased for a "Ripley's Believe it or Not" Museum in 1998), to records of all the clothing she has owned during the past 25 or so years, Burtner preserves the ephemera of everyday life, recording the whims of popular culture for posterity.

What makes her collections art? You can tell Burtner gets asked this question a lot, and that she doesn't like it. "I don't address how and why this is art," she says. "It's just what I like to do and people like to see it. I don't care if people think it's art … You've got Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol - this is 2003 and this is an extension from their past."

Her artistic epiphany: During her freshman year in art school, while viewing William Wegman's videos of his dogs, Burtner realized that play — and life itself — could be art. "It was quite a light-bulb moment," she says.

How she began collecting: In 1976, Burtner's apartment burned down and her toothbrush was one of the few things that survived. It got her thinking about how when you begin using a new toothbrush, you don't know what is going to transpire in your life during the life span of that brush. She had a party for her friends and asked everyone to bring a toothbrush and to document what had happened in their lives during the time they used that brush. Today, her collection numbers more than 1,000 brushes, which she displays by attaching them to a gallery wall with Velcro. Each brush is numbered, and the history of each brush can be referenced in binders that are part of the exhibition.

What you will see at Artspace: Burtner is showing three new works in a group show of artists who address the process of collecting. "Excerpts from Dictionary Diaries, 1977-2003" catalogs words she has looked up in the dictionary. It consists of photocopied dictionary pages with words circled and annotated. It makes for unexpectedly fascinating, voyeuristic viewing, such as her citation for "impeccable: 11-30-84 Peter said my legs were…"

Her second piece, "Dictionary Definitions, 2003," showcases "the chance juxtaposition of image and word" that she began to notice in the dictionary, such as a photo of O.J. Simpson right near the definition for "sincere."

"Dictionary Diagrams, 2003" features made-up words, such as "chalaza, dacoity and pecksniffian," paired with obscure diagrams that might suggest the words' meaning.

How documenting her life affects living her life: Burtner has to be willing to share herself with the world. "I see it as an Everywoman kind of thing," she explains. "…I put a lot of private things out there, but I just consider myself a person born in 1956 and this is what happened."

And the documenting can take up a lot of time. "Sometimes I don't use things right away because I haven't documented them," she says. For the past few months, she's been wearing a pair of reading glasses that still has a plastic tag stuck to the bridge because she hasn't gotten around to photocopying them yet. — Jessica Ronky Haddad


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