New York City apartment buildings house strange and wonderful things. In a red brick building on the Upper West Side, an apartment containing probably the largest collection of American popular culture in the United States, is piled ceiling high with objects.
Candy-colored glass irons from the 1940s compete for space with a Frank Gehry cardboard chair, a 1950s vacuum cleaner in the shape of a rocket, and a 1977 Farrah Fawcett doll and hair styling center.
Making his way nimbly around toy airplanes, Silver Streak sleds
and "brand" transistor radios, Alex Shear, collector extraordinaire, is looking for his shoes. Fully dressed but not yet shod, his beard neatly trimmed, the former marketing consultant and self described cultural anthropologist is ready to show his "stuff."
Mr. Shear's passion lies in his desire to catalogue American
ingenuity. "I deeply feel I have a mission: to cull and collect for this
national archive of the American dream." Americans, he says, have given the world its future through innovation; but the problem is that they have stopped dreaming.
He is, in a sense, a hopeful velvet revolutionary; counting on his collection to inspire children and bring adults back to the times when family values, humor, "can do" spirit, and ingenuity were part of every day life.
To illustrate these different aspects of 20th century life, Mr.
Shear has carefully assembled both folk art and consumer culture products, maintaining a delicate balancing act between the two. Perhaps one of the best examples of a marriage between the two art forms, is his collection of "factory folk art" -- whimsical robots and tin men made from scrap metal by factory workers during their lunch breaks, inspired, says Mr. Shear, by Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, Jules Verne's "retro-future," and Buck Rogers. "These guys were unknown artisans. They worked 8 to10 hours a day making consumer products." Other unknown artisans -- often prisoners-produced "Obsession art," another category in the collection -- multi-colored bags made from hundreds of Camel cigarette packs or chewing gum wrappers.
Part of Mr. Shear's talent lies in his ability to pinpoint the zany, selecting objects which are creative, humorous, and sometimes just plain kitsch. His "American icons" dolls include "FloJo" (Florence Griffith Joyner) Jim and Tammy Baker, Dolly Parton, former President George Bush and Vanna White. "FloJo's" main feature is a full set of FloJo nail stickers. "My question is, as Flo was hitting a world record, was she thinking -- am I wearing the right nails? This is the beauty and absurdity of it," says Mr. Shear.
Having "bet the works on my dream," Alex Shear energetically
promotes his collection to corporations and television shows in order to keep himself and his dream alive. "Millennium planner," "Retro-marketer," or Nostalgia Broker," are some of the terms Mr. Shear uses to describe himself to corporations whose products, he tells them, define our culture. After CBS This Morning did a 7 minute segment on him in early August, the possibility of producing a traveling millenium show depicting the 20th century American consumer, and with several major newspaper and magazine stories about him in the works, Alex Shear may soon become a familiar figure on, perhaps a morning television show, surrounded by salesmen's models of swimming pools or sample telephones, or kitchenware from the 1930's all celebrating an era of American ingenuity.
Alex is featured in Cigar Aficionado magazine, now on newsstands.
Olivia Snaige is a freelance journalist who recently moved to New York from
Paris where she was editor-in-chief of World Media network, a syndicate of 26 newspapers worldwide.
She's written on cultural events, architecture and design for the Guardian, the Christian Science
Monitor, The European and Conde Nast Traveler.