Seeing Things: Virginia Fleck keeps tabs

Virginia Fleck
Virginia Fleck, "Treasure 2.7." Courtesy the artist and Northern-Southern Gallery.

Virginia Fleck started collecting aluminum can tabs years ago after she came across a shimmering pile of them in tub when she was poking around a salvage yard in search of metal to weld. Fleck was pregnant with her daughter Circe at the time, and after spending the few crumpled dollars she had on her for the bin of can tabs, she spent the remaining weeks of pregnancy creating long chains, linking the tabs together with safety pins.

“I almost cried, they were so beautiful,” Fleck said recently at the opening of “Rebris,” a two-artist exhibition at Northern-Southern Gallery, that features Fleck’s alluring can tab sculptures along with Ted Carey’s careful, clever combinations of manipulated found objects.

Fleck has long used recycled and post-consumer material for art works, large and small, that are ebullient, buoyantly subversive, and ultimately hopeful. For almost two decades she has collected plastic bags and wrappers which she then carefully splices into wondrous, vivid mandelas — modern meditation objects crafted from take-out food and big box store bags.

In November, Fleck’s shimmering 25-foot long suspended cascade-like sculpture — made from 85,000 can tabs —  lit up social media during the East Austin Studio when it when on view in a group exhibition.

Virginia Fleck
Virginia Fleck, “Cascade”

For all their elegant composure, Fleck’s can tab sculpture are remarkably simple in their construction. The tabs are linked by safety pin, the chains then tacked to MDF board with a small nail. It’s the sheer density of material that creates allure.

Fleck hires assistants to help. A piece the size of “Treasure 1.7,” which measure 42-by-56-inches, represents about 70 hours of art-making time.

“It’s meditative,” says Fleck of the hours spent making.

Virginia Fleck
Virginia Fleck, work-in-progress, 2019. Courtesy the artist and Northern-Southern Gallery.

Having long since used her original purchase of tabs, Fleck sources more from a variety of places. She saves every tab she and her family use. Friends collect them for her too. Online there are also numerous thrifting and crafting sites that sell them, including the Michigan city of Kalamazoo which in its effort to be zero waste, sells all manner of recyclable material. Fleck bought thousands by the pound, then a few months later went back to the Kalamazoo site looking for more only to find they had doubled in price.

“Maybe I started a demand,” Fleck laughed.