The Romanian-born, New York-based writer and artist Ella Veres brings a sense of humor and befuddlement about her adopted country to her assemblage works made with found materials. Her performance monologues are also impressionistic collages. Here, she ruminates on the essence of the trash she transforms into art, each piece of which she regards as a gem.

As part of the 2024 New York City Fringe, Veres, who sometimes goes by the name “Vermillion,” will present her monologue performances at the 14th Street Y (344 E 14th St, New York, NY 10003), in downtown Manhattan, on Monday, April 8, at 7:40 p.m.; Monday, April 15, at 7:40 p.m.; Tuesday, April 16, at 5:30 p.m.; and Sunday, April 21, at 1:30 p.m.

The performances will later be streamed on the 2024 New York City Fringe’s website. The artist notes that each recorded performance will be available for viewing on that website for 48 hours following its original, live presentation.

Ella Veres performing her “Earth Burial” piece on Governors Island, New York Harbor, September 2023. Photo courtesy of the artist

by Ella Veres

My performances will bear the collective title “On Cats and Dogs and Other Family Revelations.”

Through them, I’ll be re-entering performing on stage after a decade of quietly mending through creating art with my hands. I started with photographs and eccentric jewelry, and ended up with a 1000-blue-bottle, public-art installation that was presented on Governors Island last September. There, I ended up performing my “Earth Burial” piece, in which I lay down on the ground and was covered by those said bottles.

Stuff, glorious, cast-off, worthless-precious stuff! A photo by the artist and performer Ella Veres of some of the found materials she has gathered and that she uses to make assemblage artworks.

Why is it that I use discards in my artwork?  Perhaps it’s a combination of history, poverty, place, sympathy, restoration, self-mending, and doing my bit against the awful destruction of our planet.

I grew up under communism in Romania, and we didn’t have many things, so things were mended. Gradually, most of the new things we acquired were shoddily made. An armoire my parents bought at the beginning of their marriage in the 1950s is still going strong, while the armchairs they purchased in the 1980s fell apart in the 1990s. Shoddy craftsmanship. Cheap glue. Old, sturdy, good-quality things were trusted more. We were inventive in our make-dos. Need as the mother of invention.

I came upon a wondrous store in Bucharest during the 1980s. It was at a Jewish community center. They were selling the family heirlooms of the Jewish people who had escaped communism by immigrating to Israel. Their passports were paid by the Israeli government, but their physical possessions had to be left behind — tottering mountains of furniture, china tied up in plush curtains, bundles of clothing, and bedding. My newlyweds’ rosewood armoire with its cloudy mirrors was a jewel. Made before communism, for sure. I wouldn’t know if it was centuries old, but it could have been. The silverware’s floral relief. The copper tray. The red-glass, three-foot-tall, curvy vase. They all had to be left behind anew when I left Romania myself.

From the artist Ella Veres’s treasure chest of found objects: Some of the materials she has gathered and uses to make assemblage artworks. Photo by the artist

In abundant America. Take a Tropicana orange juice bottle cap. Its color, be it orange, cobalt blue, or half opaque white, was a pleasure, representing joyous life after the gray communist drabness I had known. The broken-arches design around the cap had Gothic-cathedral connotations. My father’s father was a Lutheran. His church was taken from him when his village was turned overnight into a Romanian Orthodox one, as it became Romanian territory. I often pass by a Lutheran church on Lexington Avenue and 88th Street. Perhaps it inspired me to make curtains of stringed-together Tropicana bottle tops.

One winter, I collected blue bottles and sturdy Patrón tequila bottles. I turned the tequila bottles into kitchen containers, filling them with nourishing rice, dry peas, lentils, quinoa, Chia seeds, and sesame seeds, and keeping a smaller set for spices. Bottles that had once held lethal alcohol were now filled with life-nurturing contents. Perhaps I was mourning the death of my younger brother, whose muscle tissue the autopsy doctor said was pickled in alcohol. Why had no one stopped this young man from drinking himself into an early grave, the doctor asked in dismay. Why? Because Mother Romania was killing her children.

Knobs and drawer handles from the artist Ella Veres’s collection of found objects. Photo by the artist

Years later, those blue bottles of mine that had long been dormant in a storage box became part of my first glass assemblage, a meditative blue light in memory of my brother. Its effect on viewers made me want to make a larger, public glass installation, mourning all young lives lost to drinking. 

To do so, I assumed that I would need 100 blue bottles. I asked for help from Sure We Can, a canners’ collective in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Alas, the eager canners were unstoppable, so I honored their bottle-gathering effort and accommodated the deluge of 1000 bottles they accumulated for me. Then I found myself researching glass-bottle reuse. As it turns out, the beverage industry doesn’t do much reusing of its products’ bottles. Beverage producers boast about recycling, not reuse. After we drink the contents of their bottles, they’re smashed, melted, and recast into new bottles. By contrast, as a young girl in Romania, I grew up carrying back to the store our empty milk bottles and yogurt jars. 

The more I read about recycling, the more distraught I became. So I wrote e-mails — to no avail — to beverage corporations, inviting them both to see the wonders I had made using their beautiful bottles and to tell me about their bottle-reuse plans.  

Let’s go get stones: Items from the artist Ella Veres’s collection of found objects. Photo by the artist

One night, I had a nightmare in which I was the Earth and I was succumbing under an avalanche of bottles. So, last year, on Labor Day weekend, I invited members of the general public to bury me in my role as a stand-in for the Earth, in bottles — and they did, on the grassy fields of Governors Island. I’ll never forget the faces of attentive children carefully placing bottles on my prostrate body, only to see me resurrected, since our blue Earth will survive a sixth extinction just fine.  Come spring, when burial grounds defrost, I’ll get buried in bottles again and again.

I’m currently finalizing a series of mosaics I fashioned as working grandfather clocks out of my broken plates — broken china I couldn’t part with. I added to the mix discontinued tiles I got from tile stores, architectural firms, and people who like my work and donate their own tile surplus. Next on my to-do list is the making of a series of woodworks inspired by walls, fences, partitions, and boundaries, using found or donated lumber. And also a series of vestments reshaping used denim, T-shirts, and shirt fabric. Each series will include a public performance. I don’t know why. Perhaps out of social concern.

One can never have enough wire: Treasures from Ella Veres’s trove of found objects and materials, which she uses to make assemblage artworks. Photo by the artist

I don’t know why I do what I do, because it’s ridden with shame. Digging for bottles in the recycling is not pretty. But I like rescuing, washing off muck, and restoring beauty. Giving an object a second chance, a second life. Or dignity? It might be that, symbolically, through this work, I’m putting my broken self back together. Reinventing myself. 

It might be part of my family’s neurological makeup. My father had mounds of empty soft-drink bottles in the backyard. He’d cut them in half and use them as mini-hothouses to grow his seedlings for the vegetable garden. But when his powers dwindled, and he couldn’t work the garden, the bottle stack still filled a third of the backyard. My mother burned them, to his distress. My sister fills the old family house with broken appliances, furniture, stacks of old magazines and newspapers, and thousands of new books she never reads. She just amasses them, like a deranged squirrel gathering acorns without eating them, filling her den with acorns and dying under an avalanche of those nuts. This kind of hell is private, causing her alarm if you gaze disapprovingly at her stash. 

Hopefully, I put to good use this dangerous propensity to accumulate. It takes time and space in which to gather discards, to figure out why I amassed them, and to feel ashamed and secretive about having done so. Someone who doesn’t understand me might scream that I’m too much of a hoarder. It takes time, too, to set out turning this stuff into art; one has to have a sense of purpose and be able to undertake the physical effort, along with the focused mental effort one must make to solve the technical puzzles that arise while one’s at it.  But, oh, the delight of looking at what one has made when it’s done!

I have clutches, stashes of pebbles and rocks, parts of a computer’s exoskeleton, copper wires, vintage lace, buttons, drawer knobs, rusty nails, glassware, and more stuff, all of which awaits its turn.

One day, I may understand why.

Who doesn’t need a batch of copper coils? Above: More items from Ella Veres’s ever-expanding collection of found objects and materials. Photo by the artist