"I think this is one of my earliest works," Mott-Ly says. The picture in the frame is a stark white background with a child's marker drawing of a nurse in a red-crossed cap, smiling and holding out a tray of food. A retrospective showcase of Mott-Ly's work opens Friday, reviewing a lifetime in art that goes all the way back to the nurse.
In high school, Mott-Ly found another creative outlet, joining his mother and brother every weekend for yard sales. "I would collect the oddest combination of things -- tin pins and toys -- and I'd think, Why am I buying this stuff?" The answer came when his Lincoln, Nebraska, high school art club took a trip to Chicago. "I saw the Joseph Cornell boxes at the Art Institute, and it was like the cliché of a light bulb going off," he says. "It made sense why I'd been collecting for so long."
Cornell's boxes juxtapose commonplace objects to create imaginary miniature worlds. Mott-Ly's boxes do the same, mixing corn-husk dolls and black-and-white photographs or treating wire mesh and lace with equal care.
Studying at the Kansas City Art Institute in the mid-'80s, Mott-Ly started making boxes adorned with dead birds that he had shellacked or painted. Word spread about his collecting tendencies. "I'd come into school, and someone would've left dead animals for me or some little item that they found that they thought I could use."
His pack-rat tendencies haven't abated with age. Gesturing to the stacks of paper and piles of ephemera behind him in his East Crossroads studio, Mott-Ly imagines visitors saying, "What is all this crap?" But he sees it differently. "Everything I have is like a jewel, down to a pebble. "