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Inside Appalachia

W.Va. Artist Repurposes Flea Market Finds, Reflects On Rust Belt

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Robert Villamagna and his red wagon at the Rogers, Ohio Flea Market. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Flea markets are a common feature across rural landscapes, especially in Appalachia. If you have never been, there is typically something for everyone, and one West Virginian artist is turning the unique finds into art. 

“Sometimes it’s the imagery. A portion of my work has an industrial aspect to it, and I don’t mean just the materials, but the imagery,” Robert Villamagna said.

Finding The ‘Junk’

Robert at the flea market. He has been going to this particular market for much of his life. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Robert’s primary art medium is patterned tin — like what is used to make old chip cans or coffee canisters or toys — and there is an abundance at flea markets.

He comes to Roger’s Flea Market in Rogers, Ohio, every other Friday and has been doing that off and on for almost 40 years. He was named West Virginian Artist of the Year in 2016, and much of the materials he uses he finds at this market.

Vendors know him so well they sometimes set certain items aside for him.

“I got something for ya. It’s free,” said Mike Rosati to Robert.

Mike is a regular merchant at Roger’s. He saved an old children’s noise maker made out of tin for Robert. It is brightly colored, with a painted dancing cartoon character in the middle.

“I know he makes tin sculptures and pictures and stuff so I saw that and thought he could use it,” Mike said.

Robert’s wearing red, circle rimmed glasses and a grey fedora. He pulls a little red, canvas wagon to carry his treasures.

Robert Villamagna (left) and Mike Rosati. Robert’s holding the metal toy maker Mike saved for him. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Robert loves what he calls “old junk.” He said it adds another dimension to his art.

“Some of this stuff carries a little bit of the history or spirit of the people that used it or carried it or made it,” he said. “In amongst the big story of the main piece of work, these little stories of these little pieces of metal are coming thr and they have a story too.”

Turning ‘Junk’ Into Art

Robert works out of his studio in Wheeling, West Virginia. Back in that studio — directly behind his home — it looks like what Rogers Flea Market would look like if it were chopped up and condensed into a single large room.

“This is more than lived-in. Actually, it’s the worst it’s ever been,” he said “I call it organized chaos.”

Robert organizes all of his flea market finds into bins. He later uses the materials in his artwork. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

It’s not messy, but over the years Robert has amassed a lot of material. The room is filled with deconstructed flea market finds in labeled boxes. For example, one bin is marked, “blue plastic eyes from stuffed animals.”

Robert spends a lot of time breaking down objects — especially tin — into small pieces he can use for his art. For instance, a large coffee can will become a dozen flattened pieces. He uses sheers to cut out words, patterns and colors he likes. 

“Here I got some nice white, I might need it for something. So, I’ll put it in my white box. And then there’s red boxes, grey and brown,” he said. “And then there’s more bins with colors — over here there’s a lot of patterns.”  

Some of his work resembles sculptures, but a lot of it is like a painting, except instead of paint, he uses metal to create an image. His pieces are bold — brightly colored with a bit of a modern art flare. Sometimes he includes words or other materials, like buttons off a doll or old black and white photographs.

One of Robert’s pieces. He likes to use metal of different colors, textures and sizes to create his art. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Appalachian Roots

Robert is comfortable working with tin, because in some ways it is a part of him. He grew up next to a steel mill in Ohio, not far from Rogers Flea Market. He worked many different jobs in his life, but he spent 13 years in the steel mill. Robert said he was depressed, and his boss picked up on it. 

“And he said, “Where would you rather be?” And I said, “I’d rather be working as an artist or making art or something in the arts.” And he said, “Why don’t you make art about this place?” Robert said. “And I thought, you’ve got to be kidding me. I couldn’t wait every day to walk out and punch out, and then to make art about it? No way.”

But he could not resist. During breaks Robert started painting portraits of his fellow steel mill workers on the brick walls on the mill with fluorescent marking paint.

“We called it the Hall of Laborers,” he said.

Now as a professional artist, Robert’s work still reflects issues within Appalachia. 

Energy Industry And Flea Markets

One of his finished pieces peaks out from behind a stack of boxes in his studio. 

It is called ‘Old King Coal.’ It has a wooden, square frame about 4 feet tall, lined with license plates from Appalachian states. The image inside is made up of different colored tin pieces – each nailed carefully into place.

Robert Villamagna and his piece ‘Old King Coal.’ The piece represents the coal industry being pushed out by natural gas. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“It’s a big hunk of coal crying and he’s wearing a crown. He’s on crutches,” Robert says. “In the background you see some windmills and you see some fossil fuel burning plants. Down below his feet he’s stepping over a gas line.”

The overall idea being the gas industry is overtaking energy production in Appalachia, which is oddly reflected in the flea markets, too. 

Rogers Flea Market is 90 minutes away from Robert’s home in Wheeling, and that is the closest one to him. There used to be others, but in recent years they have shut down. Robert said he has noticed a lot of the land occupied with gas pipeline. 

Back At Roger’s

So, he makes the trip to Ohio religiously. 

Back at Roger’s, he said sometimes things just speak to him, like this oversized baby doll. She is wearing red and blue pajamas, her face is plastic with painted on red cheeks, and she has big blue eyes with eerily long eyelashes.

“I got a feeling he’s going home with me,” Robert said. “It’s somewhere between creepy, spooky and wonderful. It’s just going to have to be something, I [just] don’t know what.” 

Weeks after this story was reported, regional news outlets indicated a fire consumed a portion of the market, but apparently it is a resilient community. Robert said he went a couple weeks later, wagon in tow, and things were back to normal.

Robert and the doll he found at the flea market. He plans to use it in his art. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting. It is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts and culture.