Free, cool art: where to find it, and how to look

Free, cool art: where to find it, and how to look

As readers of this blog know, I'm a huge proponent of putting art on your walls that doesn't cost a fortune. You know what's really inexpensive? Completely free art. And no one is better at finding it than my sister Julia. Her gorgeous Brooklyn apartment is filled with incredible finds that mirror her quirky, creative style. Every time I go I just "ugh" in jealousy. I invited her in today to talk about her strategy:

Eliza: Okay to kick things off, what percentage of your amazing art did you pay for?

Julia: Oh man, let’s see. Very little. Probably 10% I actually paid real money for — real money meaning more than $50. The rest was either very inexpensive or free.

The backstory is that when I moved to San Francisco, I brought nothing with me, so I was essentially furnishing a room from scratch — but art wasn’t something I was looking to spend a ton of money on. Seems obvious, but very cheap or free art is best if you’re on a budget and don’t want to sink much (if any) money into what’s hanging on your walls.

 An early arrangement of my art in SF

An early arrangement of my art in SF

Eliza: What are your best sources?

Julia: My best source for *completely* free art is the street. I know that sounds broke, and a big caveat here is that I now live in an area of Brooklyn where a lot of cool stuff ends up out on the curb. One of my favorite pieces — a huge print of Andreas Gursky’s ‘99 Cent’ —  I found resting against a fence down the street from my apartment. (Although I had to do some work on it before it was ready to go up on the wall. More on that later.)

If your neighborhood isn’t teeming with curbside gems, my biggest tip is to frame things you think are cool from magazines or books. I’ve framed pages from everything from a Frank Lloyd Wright coffee table book to a figure drawing book. I found a book called called Widths by Amos Goldbaum (he did that great mural at Church and Day Streets in San Francisco) in Park Slope last summer — I still need to put one of its pages in a frame.

Oh, also — wrapping paper. Get cool wrapping paper and put it in a frame. I got a great piece from Alley Cat Books that people always ask about.

 Frank Lloyd Wright framing in progress

Frank Lloyd Wright framing in progress

Eliza: Which is your favorite piece in your collection?

Julia: This is tough. I would have to say my favorite piece of art is a framed page from the Paper Magazine YOUth issue featuring Kylie Jenner. It’s this totally ridiculous photo of Kylie in a Dsquared2 jumpsuit. People who don’t know me super well sometimes see it and are like “uhh,” but it probably requires context as to how much I love Kylie and am fascinated by the Kardashian-Jenner coordinated family branding efforts.

 Kylie preparing to make the move to Brooklyn

Kylie preparing to make the move to Brooklyn

Eliza: What do you look for in a piece of free art?

Julia: The most important thing is the hanging apparatus on the back. I always check that first. If it doesn’t have a solid pair of eye hooks on either side and picture wire connecting the two, I’ll usually leave it, unless I LOVE whatever’s in the frame and think I’d want to transfer it to a new frame.

Something I’d actually like to start doing more is the opposite — picking up interesting frames, even if I’m not wildly into whatever’s in them. It’s easy to swap in something you like better, and a variety of sizes/colors/textures of frames on your wall makes for a more interesting look than frames that are all new or all the same color.

 Day, like, 2 in Brooklyn. I didn't have much furniture set up but I *did* have all my art up on the wall.

Day, like, 2 in Brooklyn. I didn't have much furniture set up but I *did* have all my art up on the wall.

Eliza: Do you worry about bed bugs, dirt, or anything like that when sourcing free art?

Julia: It’s something I think about, particularly with anything involving any kind of fabric or texture. One of my favorite pieces is a knit yarn...thing...that I got a couple years ago at Community Thrift, a great spot in San Francisco. I remember when I first got it, a friend was like...that definitely has bed bugs. (It didn’t!)

In general, I try to just use my judgment. In order for me to pick something up and lug it home, it’s gotta be fully intact and clean.

 The yarn thing. Also, my favorite Matisse.

The yarn thing. Also, my favorite Matisse.

Eliza: How do you frame them?

Julia: I mentioned the Gursky print earlier. I was so excited to find it, but I knew the size was irregular and it’d be tricky to get in a frame. Luckily the print had enough repeating elements that I could cut it down and get away with it, fitting it *just* into the dimensions of the biggest available IKEA Ribba frame. I usually keep a couple of those on hand (they’re cheap!) for when I find things I want to put up on the wall.

From there, I either prop the frame directly onto a nail in the wall or hang it properly with picture wire and a hook. (I’m trying to move away from the former — the other day, a framed photo of Barbara Streisand in my bathroom fell and nearly broke. #pray4babs) Again, I keep a variety of sizes of hooks on hand so I can play around with the best setup depending on size/depth of frame.

 Thank you for your prayers

Thank you for your prayers

Eliza: What tips would you give someone who is interested in sourcing free art?

Julia: The best thing about free art is that it’s...free. So don’t be afraid to try things on for size. I’ve definitely picked things up, taken them home, decided (for whatever reason) that they don’t work, and put them back out by the curb.

Also, be patient. Particularly if you’re furnishing a room from scratch, if you want to go the super cheap or free route, the downside is that you can’t just knock it out in an afternoon. Acquiring things one by one takes time and also requires you to constantly be rearranging things to fit in new pieces, so you also need to have an eye for what looks good together. I’ve lived in Brooklyn for a year and a half, and only just now am I content with the collection (and arrangement) of my art — and that’s even having brought a bunch with me from San Francisco.

 The current arrangement of my art in Brooklyn. Also, The Crown.

The current arrangement of my art in Brooklyn. Also, The Crown.

Eliza: What is the most outrageous thing you've done for free art?

Julia: I lugged a great print home I found in Fire Island, which was pretty ridiculous. Lugging *my beach stuff* home from Fire Island felt like a chore. I got some looks on the ferry, for sure...and then again in the walk between the subway station and my apartment. It was, like, 95 degrees.

 Fire Island ferry companion

Fire Island ferry companion

Eliza: What is the nicest compliment you've received about your art?

Julia: About my art — and by extension, my apartment — I often get, “It’s so you!” I view that as less of a compliment and more of an affirmation of what I love the most about my art, which is that it’s a collection of things that have history that’s meaningful to me.

One of my favorite things I have is a photo of the New York City skyline. A couple months after I moved to New York, my company's original, fluorescent-lit office in Long Island City was getting demolished. We all went to bid it farewell and salvage what was still lying around. When I saw this picture, I knew I had to have it — not only because it’d get thrown out otherwise, but because it felt like a little bit of company history. I love it.

 Three important women

Three important women

A modern neutral Cole Valley apartment

A modern neutral Cole Valley apartment

Designing a Small, Bright Greenwich Village Apartment

Designing a Small, Bright Greenwich Village Apartment