The Storied Collections of Judy Onofrio

Published / June 15 ,2020

As a child, Judy Onofrio collected odds and ends from the beaches and boardwalks. As an adult, her fascination with objects transformed her artistic practice.

Image of Judy Onofrio's Just Pretending, on view at the Hillary Rodham Clinton Children's Library
On View at the Hillary Rodham Clinton Children’s Library: Judy Onofrio, American (New London, Connecticut, 1939 – ), Just Pretending, 1995, mixed media, assembled found objects, 86 x 50 x 32 inches, Arkansas Arts Center Foundation Collection: Purchased with a gift from the Roy and Christine Sturgis Charitable and Educational Trust, Barry B. Findley and Katie Speer, Trustees. 1996.024

Judy Onofrio is always finding things. On the beaches and boardwalks of her childhood. At flea markets and garage sales and auctions. 

“I get a lot of power from objects,” she said.

Onofrio’s penchant for collecting began at a very young age. 

“Most of my youth was on a beach, and beach combing and finding things and doing drawings in the sand,” Onofrio said. “The whole thing of discovery just teaches very much about how – it’s like returning, it’s a memory thing – it’s like returning to something that was a wonderful creative time in my life growing up.”

While she was learning to collect, Onofrio was also learning to make art with her great aunt. Aunt Trude was an outsider artist – she was never trained, she never went to art school – but she made art using an array of non-traditional materials. Onofrio remembers Aunt Trude’s remarkable garden, where together they would make art with whatever objects they pleased. With Trude, it was “anything goes. That’s something incredible to learn when you’re young.”

“She gave me the ability to recognize that I was an artist,” Onofrio said. “It just was the beginning of everything for me.”

Onofrio began her artistic career working in clay. For 15 years, she made ceramic sculpture in her basement studio. But eventually, clay just wasn’t big enough for her anymore – it couldn’t contain all the things Onofrio was looking to include in her work. She moved to site-specific installations and fire performances (in which she built large sculptures specifically to be set on fire). Still searching for a new direction, Onofrio built an 800-square-foot studio onto the back of her Rochester, Minn. house. There, she experimented in a variety of media while she got used to the new space. But while Onofrio worked in the studio, the garden, just beyond the back door, was beckoning. 

Judyland, Judy Onofrio's sculpture-filled garden in Rochester, Minn.
Judyland – Judy Onofrio’s garden in Rochester, Minn.

For Onofrio, it was a harkening back to Aunt Trude’s garden. She began to work outside, creating Judyland, a lush garden filled with oddball sculptures, colorful treasures and flea-market finds. Then it clicked – she decided to bring what she was doing with her garden into her studio. 

The things she’d been stockpiling and collecting for years – the garage sale finds, the auction acquisitions, the stuff picked up on the beach and boardwalk – suddenly made sense. She began to work. 

With all these collected objects, Onofrio and her studio assistants built fantastical figures – enormous sea creatures and mermaids and acrobats – and painted them with a mosaic of collected objects. These works – Onofrio’s “mosaic works” – are instinctual, imagined conceptually, then crafted meticulously according to the whims of the artist. 

“It doesn’t start until I walk in the studio,” Onofrio said. “And then it could completely change because thinking is not doing – it just isn’t.” 

Onofrio and her assistants worked on Just Pretending for more than eight months, carving the base and figure in wood before embellishing it in a mosaic of glass and mirrors and beads and buttons and bottle caps and marbles and chain links and ceramic figurines. To attempt to name every object on the sculpture is both irresistible and impossible – but it pulls the viewer in as they contemplate the parts and then the whole.

Just Pretending is remarkably intricate. With layered-chain hair, cherry red lips and bright golden eyes, the mermaid gazes up at a mosaic snake. The snake wraps around her shoulder and across her back as her bottle-cap scaled tailfin flips in the air. She sits atop a pedestal of marbles and broken mirror bits and miniscule porcelain animals and an endless litany of trinkets and curios and tchotchkes. Basswood-carved figurines – fish and snakes and birds – hang from the sculpture like ornaments.

With endless symbolism to be found in the sculpture, Just Pretending rewards close observation. If you look long enough, the stories you could tell about this mermaid and her cadre of animals and flowers and figurines and mirrors and marbles are nearly infinite. If one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, that man’s treasure is but a piece of Onofrio’s collection of stories.

“Judy has the innate ability to see the infinite possibilities that exist in other people’s seemingly mundane toss-aways,” McKnight Foundation chair Erika Binger wrote about Onofrio’s work in 2005.

When Onofrio was a child in Virginia Beach, wandering the sand and boardwalk for treasures to collect, she stumbled upon something that stuck with her. A hurricane had left a shifting hole in the sand. The young Onofrio climbed down into the hole and found the ruins of an old beach club – palm trees painted on plaster walls, old tickets littering the floor. Slivers of sunlight shone into the room through the dunes.

That’s Just Pretending. It’s memory and nostalgia. A beachside discovery shimmering with summer afternoon sunlight. “In looking at it, it really takes me back to a happy place of discovery,” Onofrio said.

Just Pretending’s sense of storytelling and nostalgia makes it a perfect fit at the Hillary Rodham Clinton Children’s Library & Learning Center. Onofrio has written that she “…constructs a world of memory, humor and stories,” in her work. And what else is the role of a library – and especially a children’s library – if not to help build worlds of imagination?

Headshot of artist Judy Onofrio
Judy Onofrio

In 2005, 10 years after she finished Just Pretending, Onofrio was named a McKnight Distinguished Artist. In 2008, she received a diagnosis that prompted her to reconsider her artistic practice – the ways she’d been working beyond her physical capabilities. The mosaic pieces represented a utopia where she could be all the things she wasn’t in real life. In this fantasy, trapeze artists and mermaids and airborne acrobats ruled the world. 

For a while, Onofrio had also been collecting bones. Much as with her earlier collecting, she was fascinated by them – but unsure how to use them. She stashed her new collection under the porch. She sent some off to her artist daughter – maybe Jennifer could find a use for them.

While she was sick, Onofrio began to work with bones. After a few transitional works that included mosaic materials and bones, she stripped the color away entirely. She got rid of the collections of stuff that made up the colorful mosaics, still stockpiled in her warehouse. She went searching for more bones, digging them up, eventually collecting, she estimates, nearly 1,000 pounds of bones. She cleaned them, painted them, and cast copies of ones she couldn’t find enough of out in the world. 

Out of bones, Onofrio built large baskets and wall-hangings and free-standing sculptures. Stripping away the mosaic elements, Onofrio was working with pure form. With bones as the found materials making up her work, the symbolism of an art of collected objects became more stark. But just as the mosaic work had, these new works pointed to her own physical vulnerability.

“I think about the bones as a celebration of life and transformation,” Onofrio said “It was just a whole new start.”

Onofrio takes what is left behind – the remains of life and living and allows them to contain something new and more than they ever before. She assembles new worlds – both utopian and stark, hopeful and reminding us of our own mortality.

That’s what Onofrio has always done with her art. She takes the things we leave behind and allows them to be part of a new story – and with all these new stories, she gives herself and her viewers new life.