January 2008
p. 25

“An Incredible Journey”

Artist, seeker, wanderer, Margi Scharff lived a life on the margins, crafting artworks of great beauty and delicacy out of trash. Author Janet Fitch recalls the artist's unique spirit.

I'd long heard rumors and stories about Margi Scharff before I met her, a peripatetic artist who lived like an itinerant monk wandering the world's backroads, an alchemist of the highest order who made art out of trash. But I was in no way prepared for the slight, blonde, bespectacled woman with the wry sense of humor and quick smile, friendly and so, well, normal. Though she lived without a permanent address or health insurance, possessing nothing but a suitcase and her project.

Margi Scharff spent the last eight years wandering, generally by the cheapest possible conveyance--on foot or public bus or train--the culturally dense landscapes of Southeast Asia, trekking from village to village, bussing between teeming cities, living on a strict budget of $10 a day and picking up trash off the road to transform into the most elegant small collages, each responding to the art and the ethos of the country in which she traveled. Every year or two, she would return to Los Angeles to show the work through a number of galleries, including L2kontemporary, LA Artcore and, most recently, Overtones Gallery, earning enough money on each visit to return to Asia.

Over the years I bought eight of these small jewels. They came from travels in India, Nepal, Burma, Bangladesh. She created works in Thailand, Laos, China, Malaysia, Cambodia. Each tiny masterwork is composed of the trash unique to that country, and one can see how perfectly these pieces reflect the taste and manners of the culture from which they stem. There's lots of gold in the Burmese pieces. India is highly literate, so these works are dense with the printed word and marked by a definite sense of humor indigenous to the culture. By contrast, there's little writing in the Nepalese pieces, which tend to centrally composed, mandala-like, representing the Nepalese spiritual orientation. Bangladeshi pieces are wild, fragmented, a whirlwind: as, she said, the country felt to her. My Burma piece has narrow bands of color in wavy lines--a bit of typewriting, a line of gold, and many blues--like waves coming in on the Bay of Bengal, where she was staying.

Fragments of maps make their appearance, as do ubiquitous restaurant and hotel receipts, cigarette papers and the foil linings of cartons. The red of firecracker paper gathered after celebrations. Bidi papers and lottery tickets and cigarette boxes, candy wrappers and newspapers, all torn or cut into tiny mosaic fragments painstakingly pieced together to form exquisite collages in highly portable form.

Born in 1955 in Memphis, Tennessee, Margi Scharff spent the '80s and early '90s in Los Angeles, lecturing at local art institutions and schools, working in an industrial space downtown, where she created huge sculptures and installations out of found materials, many of which addressed social issues of poverty and homelessness. Later on, she decided to simplify her own life and rid herself of unnecessary encumbrances. She moved to a beach in Tijuana, where she gravitated to works using smaller-scale elements such as bottle tops, rusty nails and pull tabs. Finally, in Asia, where her sojourns began in 2000, she worked solely in paper collage and could carry up to a year's worth of work in a simple cloth shoulder bag. Her only other possession was a suitcase containing one change of clothing and her art materials: scavenged trash, Elmer's glue, and a pair of scissors. (At one point, in Nepal, her suitcase was stolen--and was found back on a trail in the forest, half-burned. She surmised that the thieves opened it and found it full of litter, and thought she'd played a trick on them. Outraged, they'd set it on fire.)

Margi's life was inseparable from her art. It was a ll of a piece, a single project--the minimalism, the serendipity, and the faith and spiritual development that living without a safety net demands. She was completely open to life and adventure, making fine art out of thing air. If the journey is the destination, Margi was the ultimate sojourner. She so captivated Daniel Lak, a reporter for the BBC she met in Kathmandu, that he created a film about her and her project, called "Rangi Changi: The Color of Art."

Last year, as she was traveling in India, getting ready for a difficult, long-anticipated journey to Mongolia (bolstered by the windfall of a $25,000 Pollack-Krasner grant) she began to feel unwell. She checked into the hospital, where was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer. She underwent a series of chemotherapy treatments in Delhi, staying between bouts in guest houses in the beautiful mountains of Dharamsala to gather her strength, where she continued to make friends and art. At last, she returned home for a show at the Overtones Gallery and to finish her remarkable journey.

She operated without possessions or external responsibilities, owning nothing but her skill and creativity, her ability to create art equaled only by her talent for gathering friends wherever she went. Pictures of grinning Indians wearing her platinum blonde wig, purchased by a friend after her hair fell out, festooned her blogsite. With Margi, art and life came from the same place--she had the eyes to see beauty and possibility where few others would think to look. To meet Margi Scharff was to receive a resounding shake to ones' world view. Part of her project, she said, was not just traveling and creating art but also showing people in other cultures that America is not only about consumption and wealth, as they imagine it to be, but also about simplicity, generosity, creativity, and a sense of adventure--qualities that Margi perfectly embodied.

Margi Scharff died on July 2, 2007 in Tiburon, California, at the age of 52.