Tom Zarrilli is in his element. It's early on a sunny Saturday morning and Zarrilli is surveying the wares for sale in a Decatur yard overtaken with a resale kudzu of used books, wicker baskets and children's puppets.
The artist-slash-children's librarian is also simultaneously uploading images to his Facebook page. He photographs a Che Guevara poster done in the style of an Andy Warhol silkscreen, and planted in the middle of a mild-mannered librarian's yard. He records the poster for posterity just in time. It is soon snatched up by a pair of pretty blond teenagers apparently harboring Marxist inclinations of their own.
With its mix of egghead literature and Budweiser tchotchkes, this yard sale has what Zarrilli calls "a crude charm." He should know. A longtime connoisseur of yard sales, Zarrilli has assembled his photographic portraits of yard sale sellers and their stuff for the solo exhibition Faces of the Yards of Clutter at Callanwolde Gallery. The exhibition features hipster artists divesting themselves of years of accumulated thrift store detritus, a man with a yellowed mass-market painting of the Last Supper, and a homespun mother in a tie-dyed skirt and Seaside hoodie standing amid piles of clothes.
For many of us, the yard sale is the annual event where our private lives are regurgitated onto front lawns with the hope that the financial payoff will be worth the effort, early hours, and the mild humiliation of displaying our consumerist gluttony and moments of bad taste for public consumption.
To most of us, it's just stuff.
But for Zarrilli, 60, the yard sale is art.
"There's something that's drawing me to this," he says he realized one day. "It's not buying, I just like looking at it. [I thought] 'I need to start writing about this.'" In 2004, he debuted his engrossing blog Yard Sale Addict devoted to documenting and commenting on the trash and treasures he's stumbled upon over the years in Atlanta. The site is a photographic cornucopia of Zarrilli's ludicrous yard sale finds but also a window into larger cultural shifts, including dire economic times that can make a weekend yard sale look like a cry for help. At a Woodland Hills sale, Zarrilli observed on Yard Sale Addict, "there were three things that stood out in this home liquidation: the sadness, the smell and the disorder. This sale was an example of family life interrupted."
"The whole concept of doing a sale of your personal belongings in front of your house I think is unique to the United States," says Zarrilli, although Canadians do have their stoop sales and Brits their communal "car boot" sales. Yard sales attest to a certain guilelessness in the American character, a surprising lack of embarrassment about the material horror show people spew onto their lawns.
Over time, Zarrilli's work has also morphed into a conceptual art pursuit and transformed the artist into something of a national sage when it comes to crap and its meaning. In 2006, Zarrilli created an exhibition of yard sale purchases that culminated in an actual yard sale at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center called A Year in the Yards of Clutter and the Driveways of Divestment. His Yard Sale Addict project is referenced in the Wikipedia entry "Garage sale" and he is an oft-cited expert for journalists at MSN Money and the Wall Street Journal on how American trends like the Great Recession can be better understood in the ebb and flow of yard sale culture.
Zarrilli has seen it all on his regular excursions: sex toys, porn, used breast pumps, some of the most hideous homemade art ever created, prosthetic limbs, half-empty bottles of lotions and alcohol, an envelope labeled "mother's hair," and nightmare-inducing ceramic figurines and clown curios.
But more than just gathering sites for kitsch, Zarrilli sees yard sales as a keyhole into the American yen for re-invention. Zarrilli speaks in a breathless rush of words as he describes the thrilling insights he's gleaned from visiting over 1,000 yard sales. He's particularly drawn to "things that are reflective of lifestyle changes," such as an old Mr. Boston: Official Bartender's Guide next to a 12-step book. "They're getting rid of both, so I think they're thinking they can work this out themselves," muses Zarrilli.
"I went to this one sale in Virginia-Highland and you could see this woman's progression in maybe the last 15 years of her life: She was in the military and then she got into long-distance running but then [she] also had a change in gender identification and discovered her lesbian self." The yard sale is one of the few places where total strangers open up the deepest, darkest recesses of their psyche, often without an awareness of just how much they are revealing in their copious self-help literature and stolen hotel ashtrays.
But the good sales are fewer and farther between these days.
Over the years, Zarrilli has witnessed an encroaching "generic-ification of American possessions. All this stuff made in China, Ikea, all the Target designer stuff," he says, has made yard sale picking less appealing. "The things that do attract me are 40 years of accumulation," says Zarrilli.
As yard sales have become less interesting to Zarrilli, he's stopped posting to Yard Sale Addict. For fresh views of front yard junk, fans will have to check out Zarrilli's Facebook page. Or savor his humanistic, charming portraits of Atlantans and their junk at Callanwolde.
And on the merits of stuff, Zarrilli remains unequivocal: "Yard sales themselves are such a good piece of culture that I think all people should appreciate them."