It started with an annoying dryer buzzer, then morphed into television appearances, museum exhibits and celebrity portraits commissioned by Ripley’s Believe It or Not!
The year was 1974, and Slater Barron was toiling in her Fountain Valley garage, dabbing at a canvas while doing laundry for her four teenage children. Distracted by the dryer, she devised a way to make the machine her ally. She turned the lint screen into a palette.
And so began Barron’s fuzzy artistic vision. Instead of watercolors and oils, she set about “painting” with fiber fluff, a medium she continued exploring as a studio art major at UC Irvine and still uses four decades later.
“UC Irvine really opened my eyes to conceptual art,” says Barron, a New Jersey refugee who served as a Navy officer during the Korean War. After graduating in 1975 (at that time, she was known as Mary Lou Barron), she refined her lint technique and also fashioned sculptures from the downy material. Among the results:
- A life-size lint picture of actor John Wayne, the first of several VIP images created for Ripley galleries in Hollywood and other cities
- A 30-foot-long installation titled “The Magic Laundry Room,” complete with a fuzz-smothered washer, dryer and elves (In 1982, Barron displayed the piece on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” along with a lint likeness of the host’s Carnac the Magnificent character.)
- Heart-shaped boxes of candy and platters of sushi made from puffy dryer detritus
- A wooden Easter egg decorated with a lint bird of paradise and showcased at the White House in 1987
News reporters dubbed Barron “the Lint Lady” and a “Laundromat Leonardo.” Friends and neighbors supplied her with a steady stream of colorful fabric flotsam. Colleges invited her to teach art classes.
Not all of Barron’s handiwork involves lint. She also crafts pieces from teddy bears, wasp nests and other curios. But dryer residue remains her signature element. She even communicates with the stuff.
“The lint sometimes tells me what it needs to be,” Barron says.
Although much of her art is whimsical, she tackles serious subjects too, such as her parents’ descent into Alzheimer’s disease. During a 2008 television interview with KCET’s Huell Howser, Barron described lint as the ideal medium for depicting her folks’ dementia saga because it’s “faded, sort of like their memories” and is “a throwaway material,” a metaphor for how some people view the elderly.
At one point, several portraits documenting her mother’s decline decked the walls of USC’s Institute for Genetic Medicine Art Gallery, but the collection now sits in storage at Barron’s Long Beach studio. At age 86, she would particularly like to find a home for the dementia pictures, which she considers her most important, but many of her other pieces are also in limbo.
“When I was 70, I had four different groups of friends and relatives come to parties, and everyone took home some art,” Barron says. “My kids have lots of it as well, but still I am overwhelmed with how much is left.”