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May 27, 2016
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From flea market find to art gallery; Dee Rivera thrives on the art of repurposing

This box is a commissioned work, with items found on a walk in the woods. The skull is a placeholder for a found fossil that will be added later.
Photos by Elizabeth McGee

Finding inspiration in items other people get rid of, mixed media artist Dee Rivera creates unique objects d’art that might best be described as three-dimensional collages. Her work is all about putting together parts of found trinkets and everyday items—pieces of jewelry, a handle from an old drawer, a candle holder, an old cheese board, vintage buttons, broken watches, wooden and tin boxes. “I’m always looking for things that have an interesting texture, or shape, or color,” she said of her flea market excursions. Once she’s found her treasure, she takes to her studio in the Bronx or sometimes to what she calls her “bone yard” behind her home near Narrowsburg; there she lets items weather or rust, and in good weather, she works there outdoors, too.

“I think I am a junk collector,” she reflected recently, “and in my mind junk is treasure waiting to be re-purposed. It brings me so much joy to take an old piece of wood and a few pieces of rusty metal and make a work of art. The transformation is like making magic. Once the piece is completed I am off to the next project and the magic starts all over again.”

When Rivera is ready to start a new piece, she lays everything out on her work table and starts combining elements. “It’s almost like writing poetry,” she said. “You put in a word and then you know you have to change it. For me, when I look at a piece that’s not finished, I feel like there’s no reason for that piece to exist, and so I just keep working until the piece tells me when it’s ready.”

Rivera is self taught when it comes to her artwork, but her background in the fashion world served her well, starting her on the path to becoming the artist she is today. “I was a pattern maker in the fashion business, and I did go to fashion school. Being in fashion and seeing jewelry and accessories all the time and seeing people design these things was fascinating.”

In fact, Rivera started out making her own jewelry. “But I didn’t find making earrings and necklaces to be all that exciting,” she said. Still, she couldn’t shake her fascination with jewelry, and soon started collecting vintage pieces, reusing parts of them to make collages. “Today, when I see something with a design that interests me, I say to myself, ‘Well, that’s nice, but I can make it into something else. I can turn a button into an owl, or anything else I like.’

“Old wooden boxes always excited me,” she said, “and tin boxes, too.” Rivera turns many of these small boxes into little shrines—take, for example, her “Blessed Mother Rusty Tin Shrine Found Object Assemblage” ( And then there’s her “Buddha Shrine Found Objects Assemblage.”

Rivera also has a special attraction for making angels, each one different ( “Since my work is assemblage from repurposed materials, my pieces are like a moment in time,” Rivera explained. “You can come close to repeating it, but no two items can ever be the same.

“People find what I do to be curious and interesting. The work has a kind of spiritual feel to it. The fact is that it was once something else, something that someone discarded, and I am able to bring it to life again and do something different with it, it isn’t junk anymore. People seem to find inspiration in that.”

Rivera has shown her work locally at the DVAA’s gallery in Narrowsburg and hopes to show some works there again this summer.

What’s next for Dee Rivera? For now she’s studying to be a metalsmith with the goal of making free-standing sculptures one day. “One of my aims is to create a big sculpture in rusty metal and let the elements add to its basic form. It’s a vision, but that is how everything starts.”