One of the last things you would expect to find inside Wendy Halderman’s house is a portrait of Karl Marx. Her home is a vision of American suburbia: two stories tall, painted a vague peach color, with a basketball hoop in the driveway — not exactly the kind of place normally associated with the father of communism. And yet, there he is, his mustachioed visage outlined in a bright splattering of red against a white canvas, leaning on the wall of this immaculately clean living room in east Ventura.
What’s even stranger is that Halderman, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed mother of three video game-loving boys, created the piece herself. Using acrylic paint, latex and pieces of torn junk mail (her trademark), she crafted this tribute to the man whose centuries-old philosophies taught her that the idyllic surroundings she grew up in — and is still raising her kids in — are not quite the utopia she always believed them to be.
“I look around this now and think, ‘There are people who do with so much less,’ ” she says from her kitchen, a neatly organized mess of advertisements, catalogues and newspapers — the tools of her trade — stacked in the corner. “I’m thankful for what I do have. I do think, overall, this is a great country. It could be a lot worse. But I like to think, ‘How can it be better? How can the problems that we have be fixed? How can I share what I have with other people without hurting myself?’ ”
Halderman didn’t always think this way. In fact, for 18 years, she was part of what she now sees as the problem. Working in the marketing communications department of a large Santa Barbara financial company, Halderman contributed to the culture of consumerism she feels is eating away at the soul of the nation. Her art is a form of atonement for the time she spent unwittingly disseminating those values throughout society.
But it wasn’t Marx who first opened Halderman’s eyes to the flaws of capitalism. It was the paper.
“It was a very stressful time in my life,” she says. It was 1999, and Halderman had just given up her job and the salary that came with it to go back to college and chase a degree. On top of studying, doing freelance graphic design and home schooling her children, “I was just being inundated with all this paper. It seemed like I was getting 15 catalogues a day. It was the holiday season, and the mailbox would be jammed full. I couldn’t even pull it out.” Eventually, Halderman began to view the daily onslaught as more than just a nuisance. “All those messages that come into your brain: buy more, get more, be more — it’s all you. After a while, it just hit me as being so absurd. When is enough enough?”
However, an odd compulsion kept her from tossing it all out. She saved every mailer and pamphlet and Victoria’s Secret, as if she may need them one day. The light switched on when she was given an open-ended final assignment for an art class at UC Santa Barbara. “I didn’t want to paint pretty pictures. I felt a responsibility for what was going on in the world, and I wasn’t going to [live up to] that by using toxic materials, like turpentine and oil, and painting flowers.”
Instead, Halderman reverted back to her days as a typographer, cutting and slicing and pasting the piles of trash she had been collecting for months and recycling it into bold pieces such as “What So Proudly We Mail,” an 80 by 48 inch replica of the American flag composed of shredded ads, latex and, for the stars, exploded paintballs, courtesy of her sons.
It is a far cry from the landscape paintings she won awards for in high school, and even farther from the sheltered suburban ideals she held until only eight years ago.
“It’s feels like a bubble now that I’ve stepped outside of it,” she says. “Between learning about these bigger concepts and traveling and seeing how people live and reading what’s in the paper or on the Web, not being so insulated by the fence and the hedge, you’re stepping out of the Disneyfication of what we grew up with in the ’60s and ’70s.”