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Bruno Mars' video inspiration recycles trash into treasure

By Mark Morgenstein, CNN
  • Artist Erika Simmons creates unique recycled portraits
  • Her cassette-tape portraits featured in video for Bruno Mars' single "Just the Way You Are"
  • Ripley's Believe It or Not museum bought 14 pieces of Simmons' art

(CNN) -- Erika Iris Simmons calls herself a "pop" artist.

But she could also be called a "classical" artist or a "spoken word" artist. It all depends on whether she's creating Madonna out of cassette tape, Beethoven out of sheet music, or Shakespeare out of some of his sonnets.

In just three years, Simmons' unique recycled portraits have earned admirers around the world. Now, the 27-year-old Atlanta, Georgia -- based artist is enjoying a much higher profile. The music video for Bruno Mars' chart-topping single, "Just the Way You Are," inspired by her cassette tape portraits, has been viewed more than 50 million times on YouTube.

Director Ethan Lader discovered Simmons' images online and thought they could work well in a video, he said.

Mars loved the idea of working with the images and Lader contacted Erika.

Lader said his goal with the video was to balance Simmons' work with the human chemistry between Mars and his leading lady.

"It was really very much a hands-on process for everyone -- getting input from Erika, talking about the look and vibe with Bruno, kind of bringing all the worlds together," Lader said.

Simmons had what she calls an "iconoclastic" upbringing.

She grew up in Orlando, Florida, where her mother was an avant-garde fashion designer who created costumes for Disney World and Universal Studios, and her father was a professional motorcycle racer.

She earned a degree in Russian Literature, and is fascinated with physics and math, which inform her art. After a few false starts post-college, Simmons said she found her calling.

"Growing up, I kind of rebelled and just took math and science and all of that. But then, after college, I saw the work of an artist named Ken Knowlton."

"When I saw his artwork, suddenly, everything clicked, and art wasn't just decoration: 'Oh, that looks pretty.' I felt it for the first time and that was such a profound experience for me. It was like hearing music in your head when I looked at his work."

Simmons said she immediately wanted to get at the essence of Knowlton's work which is composites: "He'll make Einstein out of dice or Jacques Cousteau out of little seashells."

She spent two years experimenting and "tearing up whatever I could around the house" and eventually stumbled on a a stack of cassette tapes on a blank canvas and saying, "Of course!"

Simmons cooks up her art with an eclectic list of ingredients, some of which she acquired through online donations.

"I had a page up for a while where I just asked for any donations. Weird stuff. I had graduation tassels, fishing nets, cassette tapes, film -- all of that stuff."

"I got such an outpouring of people who wanted to donate their old tapes, because I think people would rather see their old tapes go to good use, even though we don't listen to them anymore."

That interactivity with fans turned Simmons into a one-woman recycling plant. She considers herself an environmentalist, using things that would otherwise end up in a landfill.

Consider this: The Record Industry Association of America says record companies shipped more than 6.9 billion cassette tapes from 1973 to 2009. At a length of about 4 inches each, that's enough tapes to stretch around the world about 17 times -- and that doesn't even include blank cassettes.

While Simmons has earned her growing fame primarily from cassette tape portraits of music artists, her work with a variety of found materials attracted the curators of the Ripley's Believe It Or Not museums.

"We've always been interested in people who make things from unusual mediums," said Edward Meyer, the vice president of exhibits and archives for Ripley Entertainment.

Simmons said she was excited when Meyer first contacted her.

"I think I danced in the shower for a week."

"I like working with Ripley's because I know that the people who go to the museums -- they're not like looking down their glasses at it. It's fun and that's the context I like for what I do."

Ripley's bought 14 pieces of Simmons' art, displaying some of them in museums across North America, Asia and Australia, Meyer said. Ripley's will highlight more of Simmons' portraits in Tinseltown soon and even commissioned a film strip piece of Marilyn Monroe from Simmons, he said.

Most of Simmons' work is created on commission. She had an agent when she started her career and said she's had "great luck with gallery people giving support." But Simmons said she prefers direct contact with her customers as opposed to the more traditional route of art shows and galleries.

Simmons is enjoying her increased visibility, but said her art is more important to her than her new success.

She's "not making millions," she said, and money is not what drives her to make art..

"I do this because I enjoy it and people like it. And if that's not the case, then I'll move on."