A&E’s Hoarders show better not make any stops in Morehead—otherwise, Alvin and Fannie Madden-Grider may be in trouble.
“We just kept finding things that just seemed too precious to throw away,” said Fannie about the couple’s walks together, which began in 2004. “At some point, Alvin said, ‘We need to make art out of this,’ but we didn’t really know what kind of art, so we just kept picking things up, and we kept looking at art other people have made out of junk and trying to figure out what to do.”
Fannie and Alvin’s walks up and down the city’s Main Street—about one mile each way—proved valuable for exercise, emotional healing and relationship building for the pair, who have been married for 34 years. It also fueled the couple’s creativity and appreciation for their community.
The lost and discarded objects—trash to some—found new life as artwork created by the Madden-Griders, and in July 2012, the exhibition “Down On Main Street: Reclamation Art” was displayed at the Rowan County Arts Center as part of the organization’s Fuse the Muse grant program. Their daughter, Arielle Gibson, contributed her photography to the project. In addition to Arielle, 22, Fannie and Alvin also have a 24-year-old son, Aaron, and a 4-year-old grandson.
It was trash pick-up that first drew Alvin and Fannie to each other. They met in Greenup County in 1978, where they both worked for the Greenup News.
“For us, this project has made things come full circle … We got to be really good friends quickly, but one day we were walking down to a parade, and Alvin bent over and picked up a piece of trash and stuck it in his pocket and just went on talking,” Fannie remembered. “I was so touched by that—that kind of responsibility. And that made me think that he was someone really special. People usually walk right over top of garbage. That little thing was something that kind of changed things in our relationship.”
For many years while at the Greenup News, Fannie and Alvin worked together on a daily basis. After they moved to Morehead—he to head up the tutoring program at Morehead State University; she to teach a reading class—they missed spending time with each other, and the walks along Main Street were a way to remedy that. “This gave us at least an hour a day that we could talk—that was just really great,” Fannie said, adding that it strengthened their relationship as a couple.
In 1987, Fannie broke her neck and consequently developed crippling chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia that kept her bedridden and unable to walk more than half a block. Gradually, she built up her strength and got the pain under control. Fannie’s recovery was helped by her walks with Alvin, and before they knew it, they were walking miles a week.
“At first, we took along a bag and picked up garbage when we went along, and then we started seeing all of this [art potential],” Alvin said.
Several years later, when Fannie lost her father, the walks became a way to heal emotionally. She credits the time with Alvin and inspiration they received from their walks on Main Street with healing her from the loss of her dad and regaining her “sense of place.”
Fannie said the walks also made them appreciate Morehead even more, especially since the downtown area has come alive in recent years. The couple really got interested when they started finding unique debris such as a dollar bill with a note on it that read, “from Papa to Nolin.” (They included the bill on one of their exhibition pieces and added the phrase: “If you’re Papa, then you can have this piece of art.”)
And then, curiously, the junk they picked up began fitting together to tell larger stories of life in Morehead. For example, a wedding to-do list seemed to go well with a love letter from a grade-schooler, which fit perfectly with a candy box that later was adorned with foam hearts that stuck to the bottom of Fannie’s shoe during one walk.
The couple’s newspaper page design background and strong visual sensibilities helped them visualize artwork collages in their head. They must lay out all the junk at once to make the connections, and soon stories form. “We have to see what we’ve got, and that makes our house messy,” Fannie said with a laugh.
“We didn’t really find a lot of stuff that had obviously just been thrown out for the sake of littering, and that was pretty amazing,” Fannie said. “It seemed like more lost items. The only things people appear to throw out on purpose are cigarettes, cigarette packs, and pop can lids, which are almost always Ale-8.” She said they have 7.5 gallons of Ale-8-One caps and are trying to think of something “monumental” to do with them.
Fannie and Alvin were amazed at how much people dropped accidentally—such as attendance records from Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, probation plans, credit cards, MSU student IDs, class notes, AIDS test reports—so many things that they hated to see people lose. They return what they can. Sometimes, the findings are heartbreaking; other times they are joy-giving.
Trash, they concluded, can provide monumental insights if it’s looked at through the proper lens. “All of the issues of humanity we found on the street,” Fannie said.
“Love and loss, health problems, religion, anything that you could find in any novel or short story we found in physical form on the street.”
Fannie admitted that people might think they are “kind of nuts.”
“For good or ill, we’re kind of fixtures walking along here,” Alvin said.
Out of trash come the treasures of humanity
In conjunction with their exhibition, the Madden-Griders delivered a public address on what they learned about the Morehead community while collecting discarded items that would eventually become art. Following are their findings, along with excerpts from their presentation, “What we learned from what you dropped and lost.”
Fannie and Alvin said they learned that people in Morehead didn’t litter much except for Ale-8 and beer bottle caps, snuff cans, cigarette packs and store receipts.
They found repeated themes: “Health care, love and love lost, learning, commerce, friendship, family.”
“Students walk along Main Street a lot or cross it on their way to campus. They lose a lot of classroom notes, test study questions, speech outlines and the like. With every one of those we picked up, we felt a twinge of sadness for some students showing up in a speech class without notes or another student not able to find the study notes for an upcoming anatomy test.”
They discovered that people in Morehead are entrepreneurial; business cards are handed out freely and dropped just as freely.
There are substance abuse problems and many people hoping to “refind” themselves.
Morehead residents have trouble with tobacco, with Marlboro being the top cigarette brand and Camel a distant second. “And all of those Camels are trekking in a cancerous caravan toward St. Claire hospital at some future date for many citizens. What they find there will not be an oasis, we fear.”
Religion is a vital component to residents’ lives. “Religion is important to us. We drop religious tracts or throw away unwanted biblical literature we are given on Main. Surprisingly, we don’t throw down church programs. Maybe church-goers are less likely to litter.”
People, including children, lose things valuable to them. “Babies and kids also lose their favorite hand-held toys, and we know how much they can cry without the comfort of their familiar stuffed animal or toy. We felt empathy for their parents each time we found a toy like this.”
And Morehead is sick. “We learned that we are sick a lot, buy a lot of medicine, go to the hospital a lot, have chemo, get tested for AIDS, take pregnancy tests and have babies. Speaking of which, we practice safe sex a lot—and maybe even right along Main Street. At least, that is where we drop our condoms and wrappers.”
“Picking up these discarded pieces of people’s lives has been a wonder for us,” the couple concluded. “It has fed our imaginations. And made us realize how much we love this place—litter, garbage and all.”
Read our article about the Rowan County Arts Center HERE