My mother never met a piece of rust she didn’t like. While some of us will do anything to discourage, thwart or remove such erosion, Thelma Kandel embraces it. The rustier the better. The back of her Torrington home is a testament to her ardor.
A wall along her expanded deck holds possibly one of the world’s largest collections of rusty tools, farm implements, machine parts, bedsprings and odds and ends that no one can figure out what they are. Each of the hundreds of pieces (she’s lost count) has been lovingly hung by my 91-year-old dad, Myron, with my 88-year-old mom directing: “A little higher. To the left. Perfect!”
As New York City residents, it’s one of the many reasons they’ve loved having a second home in Litchfield County for the past 38 years. It’s given them new walls to hang stuff. And when the walls inside got filled, they headed outside — something you can’t do on the seventh floor of a Manhattan apartment building. It’s a fluid display. Some days they say it’s complete. Then they move a few things around and find room to squeeze in just one more piece that called out to them.
Most of the rusty artifacts have been acquired at tag sales, flea markets, on the side of roads, in parking lots, and in the maintenance yard of their condo community. My mom brags that she’s never paid more than a dollar for any item. At estate sales, she heads to the basement, where the rustier-the-better items lie “like sleeping beauties waiting to be rescued” by her. And yes, her tetanus shots are up to date.
She recalls her first acquisition: a heavy wire ring of rusted metal building supply samples she saw in a dumpster. “If that was in a museum, it would be a work of art,” she thought. And her wall of rust was born. “I love how Mother Nature creates beauty through the elements. Rain, wind and snow add to the patina, making each piece better with age — and rustiness,” my mom says. She embodies the message of recycling in her belief that “one person’s trash is another’s treasure.”
Even their local feathered friends approve. Many times they’ve discovered that birds have found the perfect spot to build a nest, hidden inside a rusty toy or antique coffee grinder hanging on the wall.
As an outsider artist, she inspires others to find art in the ordinary and repurpose cast-offs that otherwise would be relegated to landfills and garbage dumps. She’s visited many of the latter around the state because “you never know what you might find.” She’s found many goodies there. Friends often leave her packages of assorted detritus on her doorstep; rusty cans, game boards (another collection), assorted buttons and beads (making jewelry is also a hobby) and random broken parts that may wind up in artworks both inside and out.
One of my mom’s muses is Joseph Cornell, a 20th-century artist whose influence is seen in the numerous assemblages of found objects she’s created that hang throughout their three-story condo and in their Upper West Side apartment. Rust is incorporated in much of her work. Oxidized springs are curls on a doll’s head and aged bottle caps become wheels.
My sons follow in her artistic and collecting footsteps (much to the chagrin of my minimalist husband). Their motto: “You don’t look for rust, it finds you.” Years ago, when visiting Washington, D.C., they stumbled upon a large corroded piece of metal that looked like a dinosaur. Named Rustasaurus, it now hangs prominently in my mom’s kitchen. When my grown kids travel the world, they always bring home a pile of rusty treasures as a gift for their grandma, which are appreciated far more than any store-bought souvenirs.
One day, we’d love to create an open-to-the-public “Thelma Museum.” In the meantime, my parents joke that when they decide to leave Connecticut, they will sell the wall. The house comes with it.