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Arts Festival's 'Lost and Found' serves as healing factory

| Thursday, June 11, 2015, 9:08 p.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Michael Stevenson, Jr. from Gaithersburg, MD shows off his finished product of a brother and sister at the 'Lost and Found Factory' during the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival Downtown Tuesday June 9, 2015. Someone requested lost siblings to be made by artists at a kiosk that re-create any favorite items the owner has lost.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Artist Alexander Kozachek from Hartford, Conn., uses a dremel to re-create a Don Rickles autographed photo at the 'Lost and Found Factory' during the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival Downtown Tuesday June 9, 2015.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
A new request titled 'Gone to the Circus' is worked on by Marguerite Keys from Providence, R.I., at the 'Lost and Found Factory' during the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival Downtown Tuesday June 9, 2015. All replacement items are made in white.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Michelle Illuminato waits for another customer to find a lost item at the 'Lost and Found Factory' during the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival Downtown Tuesday June 9, 2015.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Artist Alexander Kozachek from Hartford, Conn., finishes placing found items for owners to claim at the 'Lost and Found Factory' during the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival Downtown Tuesday June 9, 2015.

On a daily basis, people are finding items they've lost with the help of artists at the “Lost and Found Factory” at the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival.

In a little building of steel and glass along Liberty Avenue Extension, people share a story of something they've lost: What did it look like, what did it sound like, how did it taste, why do you want it back? They are encouraged to sketch a detailed representation of their items.

The artists take that information and re-create the item or a memento of it using found objects.

Through the glass, visitors can see artists from Pittsburgh, New York, Toronto, Cleveland, London and other places, working to “find” their lost items in the former visitors center, which is now owned by Maya Design.

“I tell people, ‘We will 100 percent find your object,'” says Michelle Illuminato, the artist responsible for the “Lost and Found Factory.” She formerly taught at Carnegie Mellon University and now teaches at Alfred University in New York and works with Next Question.

The pieces — nearly 200 have been made so far — mark important times or places and are imbued with personal memories. They are entirely made up of white materials to prevent the artists from inhibiting the memory. They take about a day to create.

“Basically, I came up with a proposal and, through lots of help with different people, I was able to make it a reality,” she says, referring specifically to the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse, IKEA and Maya Design.

“I'm very thankful to be able to make a piece that has this scale. It's such a pleasure to be able to do this work. As an artist, you don't always get to have the experience of seeing people affected by your work. It's amazing.”

Marguerite Keyes, an artist from Providence, R.I., draws her inspiration from the feel of the story surrounding the object.

“Each one definitely calls for different treatments,” Keyes says. “Some have a lightness, and you can be sort of whimsical. Or a man lost his home to bankruptcy, and it was really heavy and detailed, so I had to work hard to make an object he could use as a memento.”

Illuminato says several particular objects have touched her.

One was a woman who lost a pair of orange Peruvian sandals while she was in Australia. There is the biker who lost his black denim jacket in Hollywood, and the gentleman who lost his lunch after an upset stomach. A woman who had lost touch with her friends received postcards to send them.

“My favorite is the very first one I made,” Keyes says. It was a set of two milk glass lamps with pom-poms. “I got to see the woman pick them up and she cried. To me, they are just these little lamps, but to her, they represent what the lamps represent. That's what this is about, and I think that's why this is so successful.”

One woman told the story of her great-grandmother, who saved for a long time in 1937 to buy a dollhouse for her daughter. The woman's grandmother was devastated when the dollhouse was stolen and they couldn't afford another. The artists, who were all touched by the story, were able to re-create the dollhouse.

John K. Welch shared the story of 241 members of the military, mostly Marines, whose lives were lost on a peacekeeping mission in 1983 in Lebanon. Welch was seeking peace.

“In my loss I gained a memory that has left me scarred,” he wrote. The artist made him a monument and attached a note that he, too, hoped for peace.

“Even when they're paper and wire and fabric, which is primarily what the artists are using, it's interesting how it's like they really are being reunited,” Illuminato says. “That was my hope, and when they see them again, they're delighted.”

The items, though free, are certainly valuable. They represent sentimentality and embody nostalgia, which is part of the appeal — particularly to the artists themselves.

“Even though we're finding the object, we're really finding the essence of this memory,” Illuminato says. “It's a hologram. It's ghost-like and allows for that projection. Also, there's an idea that all of these white objects belong to this factory — the individual thing but also an aesthetic for all of these objects to be connected to one another.”

Rebecca Ferraro is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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