Real Readers is an Earth911.com series featuring the stories of real people making a difference in the world.
If you’ve ever read “The Concept of Mind” by Gilbert Ryle, you’re probably familiar with the “ghost in the machine.” Erika Iris Simmons, known professionally as irI5, took this idea and brought it to a new plane, creating real “ghosts” from old cassettes, photos, paintings and books.
Delicately contouring and twisting reels of tape to create likenesses of famous faces like Marilyn Monroe and Bob Dylan, Simmons looks for objects “past their prime,” using her mediums in ways that are “appropriate to what that thing is.”
Growing up with an artist mother, Simmons started practicing art as a face painter in high school. But even with her familial influences, she was “more of an academic,” studying Russian language and literature at Washington University in St. Louis.
“After that, I went to makeup school because I’d enjoyed face painting so much. I discovered that I was really talented in colors and perspective, so I started trying my hand in artwork seriously about three years ago.”
Her propensity for reusing materials like cassette tapes in her artwork began with a need to save money. “I was a starving artist waiting tables out in Orlando. I didn’t even have enough money to have a CD player.”
But then, a chance discovery turned her luck when she found a set of ‘I, Claudius’ tapes at the library’s used bookstore.
“I was going to listen to them, but I was just lazy and set the cassettes down on a blank canvas by my front door when I got home.”
Simmons left them there for a while and was on the lookout in the meantime for her next inspiring idea until she says one day, it just struck her like lightning. “Oh my God, cassettes!”
Simmons completed her first cassette portrait last summer – a likeness of Jimi Hendrix jumping from a reel of tape. She also works with other mediums, constructing William Shakespeare from cuttings of The Bard’s own sonnets – which took almost a year to complete (“An eternity!” according to Simmons).
“It’s just tedious, but I love it,” she says. “I’d be a great little old woman sitting with some cross-stitching [...] I think most people can do what I do, it just takes a lot of patience.”
Simmons relates to her materials on a holistic level, searching for mediums with which she can establish a connection. “I want to use things that would have been thrown in the trash,” she says.
“Part of the goal for me is to use things that are already past their usefulness and have already been loved and had a lifetime of use first,” she says. “If I can pick it up in a 25 cent bin, then I think it’s lived it’s life to the fullest. I like things that have character. I like materials that, when you pick them up, they’re not crisp, and they don’t ‘fight’ you very much, if that makes sense. Mostly, I take materials that already have a mind of their own, that already have a story and come with a history and all these loaded connotations in our society, and I try to play with their skill sets or their specific story.”
Especially during tough economic times, money worries can add unnecessary pressure to your creative faculties. One of the reasons Simmons started using recycling material was because she couldn’t afford to buy it new.
“It’s hard to go out and spend 50 bucks at Michael’s every time you want to make something new,” she says. “You have to feel free to create something, and it’s hard when you have to spend so much.”
For Simmons, her motivation to reuse objects runs deeper than finding bargains at the local thrift store.
“My heart really goes out to art programs that are failing in the U.S., and one of the things that I’ve always tried to put in my art is hope for people that are creative, the typical ‘starving artist,” she says.
Simmons hopes to inspire people to reach beyond normal artistic mediums to those that are readily available.
“Kids can make origami out of phone book pages. Why spend money when there are perfectly suitable items around your house?”
Simmons is seeing a significant boom in commissions and site traffic in the past month, feeling “excited and overwhelmed.”
“I’m in it for love,” she gushes. “I do it because I love being creative, and mostly, using new ideas.”