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An Art Collection Gathered From the Street and the Laundry


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Odile Stern said of the found art filling her home, “It’s like a museum. Each piece has a history.” Credit Hilary Swift/The New York Times

Madame Lint pulled out dozens of little plastic boxes stuffed with delicate, fuzzy accumulations that haphazardly formed into patterns not unlike Chinese dumplings.

“This is family lint,” said the woman, Odile Stern, 85, of the tiny shreds from her family’s clothing that she has saved over the years, tucking them into the small clear boxes in her Central Park West apartment packed with artwork and odd collectibles. “I enjoyed putting it in boxes and showing it to friends,” she said.

She has lived alone since her husband, Richard, died. But decades ago, when they were raising their three daughters there, Ms. Stern found herself doing an awful lot of laundry.

The dryer trapped each load’s lint in a scallop-shaped screen. The dryer was long ago replaced, but Ms. Stern has kept the screen, which bears the instructions: “Clean after each load.”

“Which I did,” she said, adding that she cherished the soft, fibrous byproduct of her family’s fluffy clothes, and kept so much of it that “they started calling me Madame Lint.”

“I became interested in the shapes and the patterns that started to form,” she said. “It’s like looking at clouds — everyone sees something different in it.”

And in Ms. Stern’s apartment there is something for everyone, particularly those with a strong stomach and a taste for adventurous art.

There are valuable modern paintings as well as castoff art rescued from the street. There are arrangements of animal skulls and bones, found during nature walks.

Other items retrieved during walks in the city include small balls and street signs. “People just throw it all in the garbage, but I like to recycle things,” she said, walking through the four-bedroom co-op that she and Mr. Stern bought for a pittance in 1962. “It’s like a museum. Each piece has a history.”

The bathroom is decorated with hundreds of found umbrella handles. It used to be filled with hubcaps that she and Mr. Stern would find and clean off in the family dishwasher before hanging.

Then there are the single gloves she and Mr. Stern found on city streets and subways, perhaps 1,000 of them, all still sorted into plastic display cases, alongside other cases of toothbrushes, more umbrella handles and small balls.

“Friends got interested in the project and friends began sending them to us,” she said of the gloves.

Ms. Stern grew up in Normandy — “We’re descended from Joan of Arc’s brother, so Joan of Arc is my aunt” — where she was the oldest of five children raised by a widowed mother.

“My mother recycled everything, so I guess that taught me to look at things and find beauty in everything in life,” she said. “I like recycling common objects and making art presentations.”

During World War II, the family dug a deep trench for shelter during bombings, which they used even when troops were storming nearby Omaha Beach on D-day. Ms. Stern said she attended one of the lycées created by Napoleon. While studying in America on a Fulbright scholarship and working as a waitress in Lake Placid, N.Y., for the summer, she met Mr. Stern. Soon afterward, she said, “I became his waitress for life.”

He enjoyed her conceptual art projects, such as when she deputized Abner, the family’s pet rabbit, as an artist. She would put colorful beach towels in the rabbit’s sleeping area which he would gnaw full of holes, creating fringed shawls with fascinating patterns for her.

Her friends, the artist couple Christo and Jeanne-Claude, would rave about Abner when they visited, she said.

“Jeanne-Claude told me I had to name the rabbit Pierre Lapin,” Ms. Stern said, “because if the rabbit had a famous name, the work would do better in galleries.”

Pointing up to a striking family portrait by Howard Kanovitz, she told the horrific story of her youngest daughter, Michele — “a beautiful Renaissance woman” — who was kidnapped, raped and shot to death in 1978 at age 18. Ms. Stern turned her grief to activism and worked with gun control and crime victim groups, including as a founder of Parents of Murdered Children of New York State.

Ms. Stern refused to let the tragedy trample her ebullient, artistic approach to life, she said, walking past a cabinet displaying a polar bear’s skull she found in Norway and horse jawbones found in the Connecticut woods.

Atop the cabinet were stacks of containers holding another lint trove, from another dryer that trapped lint on circular mesh pads, in patterns Ms. Stern liked.

“It was just for family pleasure,” she said. “I thought it was funny and unusual.”

These days, she has largely curtailed her lint collecting, she said, because “now I have a new washing machine and I don’t know where the lint goes.”

She does have a lint brush, which she picked up and swiped along the couch, gathering only some unwanted fuzz.

“Dust,” she said. “That I don’t collect.”

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