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Stuck on head-turning artwork

By Michelle Hiskey, Special to CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Barry Snyder can take six months sticking one of his art works together
  • "Stickerman" gets the produce stickers sent to him from all over the world
  • Artworks are usually a 32 x 40 inch board covered with 3,000 to 4,000 stickers
  • He's currently sticking together a rendition of the cliff palace at Mesa Verde in Colorado
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(CNN) -- Barry Snyder fashioned simple sunbursts of fruit and vegetable stickers as a teenager in the late 1960s. Nowadays he spends months in his Colorado home making large mosaics using universal produce tags sent to him by admirers around the world.

"Stickerman," as he is known, selects palettes from blue Chiquitas and various colorful sticker cousins. Using Elmer's glue to affix 4 to 6 stickers per square inch, Snyder produces intricately shaded pop culture images like cars, skulls and soup cans.

The 57-year-old roofer and remodeler laughs when explaining his bright, whimsical pieces. But between the stickers, his message is serious: digital food distribution separates people from simple living.

"You can't go to the register without a barcode on these stickers, or the whole transaction will come to a screeching halt," he said. "If they can't scan it, they can't sell it, so part of my whole statement is a little sarcastic: Without these stickers, we'd starve to death."

Snyder, who doesn't use a cell phone and rarely touches a computer, recently spoke with CNN.com about his creative process.

CNN: Explain your start in this art.

Snyder: I used to save pull tops from soda cans and make daisy chains... I can't throw out something that might be good for something.

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I made starbursts and Pennsylvania hex sign-ish things from some [fruit and vegetable stickers]. One day, I decided I'd do an actual image.

The first one I sold was a still life that I called "Banana Republic." All my depth perspective was screwed up, so I stepped back and figured out a few things to do better.

CNN: You must have had to eat a lot of fruit and vegetables.

Snyder: Used to be I'd run to the store if I needed eight more plums for the dark purple color chips of a [mosaic of a] Studebaker. The closest store is 5 miles away. I went there and to stores all over and no one had plums anymore. They had gone out of season in one day. That was a bump on my learning curve. I needed to get out of the hunter-gatherer situation.

Now I have boxes and boxes of stickers. They come in the mail faster than I can use them.

CNN: Who sends them?

Snyder: A lot of people collect these, like stamps.

I have gotten food stickers from Japan, Italy, France, Sweden and Poland. Hawaii stickers are like a whole different country.

I have a Rolodex of addresses of people who have sent these to me, and there are more than 200 names of active S.O.S. [Save Our Stickers Foundation] members. I just kind of invented S.O.S. to get people to send me stickers, and I send them a postcard of one of my designs to thank them.

CNN: Any rejects in the fresh aisle?

Snyder: Some onions and pears I don't use. You have to take them off right away or the skin will peel off with the sticker after two or three days. Plums and peaches too if they sit around. Apples, cantaloupe and squash not so much.

CNN: Your designs look like they take a long time.

Snyder: A lot of my stuff takes about six months, if I can stay motivated.

I don't know where the ideas for the images actually come from, but I just accept it. The ideas come quick, but the execution tends to be tedious. I only do one to three pieces a year. And I have ideas for the next 10 years, so you can suggest whatever you want but unless you pay me to do it, don't be in a hurry for me to get it done.

Stickers aren't like tube paints, where you can buy another packet and squeeze the color on. I have to look through hundreds and hundreds of stickers and peel off the ones I want with a knife.

It's stupid, but I do it anyhow. Everyone's got a curse and this one's got me.

I believe in the right mood, and walking away from it when it's not working right. The answer will come eventually. I don't force it when it's not working. It's professional procrastination.

It's so stupid that it's neat. I love people doing a double take and seeing the light bulb go off.

CNN: Any special equipment?

Snyder: I use hobby goggles with magnification lens, so I can get in close and see details for the tiny stuff that makes me sure the cuts of each sticker are right.

CNN: Do you work in silence?

Snyder:I play a lot of music on a turntable. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Marshall Crenshaw are favorites of mine. The Beatles, of course. Early folk blues and Neil Young. I can sing as good as he can.

CNN: Do you sell your art?

Art under the hammer

Snyder: Most of my art income comes from selling prints that start at $25. I've sold four originals. I price them at $3 a sticker, and most are a standard 32 x 40 art board covered with 3,000 to 4,000 stickers.

If someone waved cash at me, I'd probably settle for $2 a sticker.

CNN: Any aspiration to full-time art?

Snyder: It's not that much fun to glue stickers. If I had to do it full time, I ain't gonna do it. Eight hours a day of this and I'd be even crazier than I am now.... I might merge my work and life, and turn into a food sticker. That would be my Charlie Sheen moment.

CNN: What influences you?

Snyder:I like M.C. Escher a lot, but he's hard to copy. I have a fairly significant collection of underground comic art, rock and roll posters and album art from the 1960s and '70s. I take a little bit from all of it.

Andy Warhol was serious but neat and serious in his art too, poking fun at the world. You can have both elements.

I try to keep things sort of cheerful with the bright colors. The world is morbid enough.

CNN: Does working with roofing shingles help your mosaic skills?

Snyder: The roof on the south side of my house has a dark red thunderbird image on a bluish gray background. The roof on the other side of my house has a desert rose with red and yellow leaves. I made the designs out of different color shingles leftover from other jobs. I like to think the hot-air balloons launch so they can sail over my house.

CNN: What's your earliest memory of produce?

Snyder: When I was growing up in Wisconsin, we'd get a fresh orange and apple in our stockings. No oranges grew near us any time of year, and apple season was over in September. I remember learning in school that back in the Pilgrims' day people were dying of scurvy because you couldn't just go to the grocery store and get what we can today.

CNN: Did you study art?

Snyder: My last art class was in middle school in 1967.

CNN: What are you working on right now?

Snyder: I have a 32-by-72-inch rendition of the cliff palace at Mesa Verde (Colorado). I went down there with my mom for an Elderhostel trip. I'm doing it with more bar code stickers. It's shaping up pretty good.

CNN: Aren't the newer stickers boring -- more bar code and numbers, less color?

Snyder: They've ruined them. With food poisonings and salmonella outbreaks, they put enough [data] in the bar codes to pin down which field the lettuce came from that made people die. They are dialed in so tight they can use the bar code to spank the farmer who let the pigs into the lettuce field. There's so much in one sticker, it's scary.

CNN: So your art is a message against technology?

Snyder: There's a good side of technology, but being old-fashioned and into hippie stuff, I don't think it's made the world that much better. It's more Big Brother. I feel like I'm being spied on with everything I do. I don't need to broadcast on Facebook that I bought underwear at Walmart today.

CNN: Do you have a favorite sticker?

Snyder: I like the Cuties [clementines]. Chiquita has had a sticker design contest. Watermelons have big stickers on them with landscape scenes and stuff like that. Those are still kind of fun to look at.

CNN: Do you still eat a lot of fruit?

Snyder: I used to be a devout vegetarian before all this artwork, but one Thanksgiving I realized I could kill a turkey and eat meat. Now that I have all these sources for stickers, I don't worry about fruit and vegetables.

I buy a lot of dried fruit now, so I can snack when I want to, and the fruit won't go funky on me.

Michelle Hiskey occasionally writes about the creative process for CNN.com.

 
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