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‘Nothing was trash.’ This Miami Beach art show wants your junk and your stories

A tightly-packed pile of old furniture and household items in the middle of a room.
Pedro Portal
Miami Herald
Detail of the installation by artist Kerry Phillips made with items she has collected through the years for her coming solo exhibit titled “Kerry Phillips: Between the Mundane and the Miraculous.” at the Bass Museum in Miami Beach opening August 17th. on Friday, August 04, 2023.

Kerry Phillips’ latest art installation is a bunch of junk. Literally.

The Miami-based artist has been working on her first solo museum exhibition at The Bass in Miami Beach, and she wants you to come help her out. Her show, called "Between the mundane and the miraculous," is set to officially open Aug. 17. But for the next few days, anybody is welcome to come into the gallery she’s installing her art in and even help her build it.

Phillips’ art may not be what visitors would expect to see at a museum, though. It looks more like a chaotic thrift store than a gallery space.

“[This] is usually the hidden part of my process,” Phillips said.

In the center of the room is a growing, rectangular pile of stuff. Old furniture, luggage, TVs, light fixtures, roller blades, blenders. It’s all somewhat precariously stacked and balanced on top of each other. (Phillips screws some items to each other to prevent an avalanche.)

And the walls surrounding the pile are lined with even more stuff. A neatly organized group of lamps, glassware, mirrors, a whole box of yarn, an assortment of vintage appliances that actually still work. Cushions removed from chairs. Drawers removed from desks. An entire trash bin of random pieces of wood.

A blood red carpet with a funky pattern hangs on one wall of the gallery. It’s from Phillips’ childhood bedroom.

So, what is going on in here? And where did Phillips get all this stuff?

In a room full of piled up furniture and household items, a woman shows off items on a table to a young girl and a man standing behind her.
Pedro Portal
Miami Herald
Artist Kerry Phillips gives a tour to Olivia Gora and her father Jan Gora, of Miami, through items she has collected through the years as she engages visitors to observe and engage with her as she builds the installation of the piece for her coming solo exhibit titled “Kerry Phillips: Between the Mundane and the Miraculous.” at the Bass Museum in Miami Beach opening August 17th. on Friday, August 04, 2023.

Until Aug. 13, visitors are invited to pick up whatever item they want and find a place for it on the pile with Phillips’ guidance. Before the exhibition opens, Phillips will place a carpet on top the pile with the layers of objects visible around the edges. It’ll look like a cross section of the Earth, Phillips said. The show will be on view until Oct. 22. (Guests will not be allowed to touch the artwork in the exhibition after Aug. 13.)

And she’s been inviting museum visitors to collaborate with her on other elements of her exhibition.

Last Saturday, Phillips held a workshop at the museum where she invited people to bring “a small found, forgotten or broken object they no longer need” and a few cups of dirt from around their home. Participants used the objects and dirt to make artwork inspired by dirt daubers, a type of wasp that sometimes make their nests on forgotten, random objects, like old house paint brushes. Phillips is also asking people to donate clean glass jars and lids, preferably without labels, for another part of the exhibition.

The truckload of stuff in the museum gallery, much of which has been used and reused in Phillips’ past artworks, is usually housed in her studio. It’s a collection years in the making, she said. There are things her parents threw out, things she bought from thrift stores, things that friends and neighbors wanted to get rid of. And every time she says she’s done collecting more stuff for her art, she finds something cool.

“If I had a bumper sticker, it would definitely say, ‘I brake for trash,’” Phillips said.


Much of her artwork is about the meaning people find in mundane, everyday objects. Phillips doesn’t just collect things, she said. She collects stories.

Random things in Phillips’ collection and artworks remind viewers of special people or moments in their lives, she said. Maybe an old cookie tin reminds you of your grandmother who kept sewing supplies in one. Or a broken video game machine reminds you of your childhood. In the big pile was a small, wooden rocking chair. Phillips got it from a neighbor who used to recline on it while breastfeeding her baby.

“Nothing in here is worth anything,” she said. “It’s not precious or a diamond or an antique that you would inherit from someone, but we still assign meaning to a lot of things.”

Originally from Denton, Texas, Phillips is inspired by her family and the items they held onto throughout the years. Her parents grew up on farms, where absolutely nothing goes to waste. Like many families, Phillips said, her parents were experts at repurposing things for others uses, especially containers.

It’s the classic conundrum, she said. Once you finally get the nerve to throw something out, you end up finding use for it the next day.

Children and grandchildren of immigrants in South Florida can relate. Tubs of butter turn into reuseable containers for chicken soup. Plastic Publix bags are repurposed for throwing out cat litter and lining small bathroom trash cans. Did we mention the sewing supplies in cookie tins?

“Nothing was trash. Everything has potential to be used for something,” Phillips said. “You had to make do with what you had.”

A pile of furniture and discarded items, including an upside-down Exit sign
Pedro Portal
Miami Herald
Detail of the installation by artist Kerry Phillips made with items she has collected through the years for her coming solo exhibit titled “Kerry Phillips: Between the Mundane and the Miraculous.” at the Bass Museum in Miami Beach opening August 17th. on Friday, August 04, 2023.

On top of all of that is the question of sustainability. In a world where most products on the market aren’t built to last anymore, Phillips artwork sparks conversations on how things can be reused instead of thrown away.

“The oddest stuff delights me. Even with all this stuff that I’ve had to add to my collection, I can’t just throw it away after. That doesn’t even make any sense to me. That’s so wasteful,” Phillips said. “So I’m gonna have to try to rehome these objects because I don’t need them. It’s like a balance between trying to get rid of stuff but also not throwing things away because they have potential and they need to be used for something.”


Phillips’ work “shows us the beauty in the material world” while encouraging people to participate in the art, said James Voorhies, the museum curator.

Usually, museum visitors only get to see the finished artwork and perfectly ready exhibitions. Phillips’ installation is a rare opportunity for people to see the creative process and make connections with each other, he said.

“She creates these exhibition contexts where people are invited to slow down and think about their relationship to materials and the memories that those objects and materials hold individually,” Voorhies said. “It kind of forms a community momentarily, even around talking about those relationships and materials.”

The response from the public reflects that, Voorhies said.

When people walk into the gallery, Phillips is there to greet them. Visitors and Phillips strike up conversations about the artwork, the stuff and the stories they have related to stuff.

She recalled one couple who walked in. The man told her that the very cluttered gallery felt familiar to him. He helps people who struggle with organization declutter their homes.

Two sisters from New York came in, spent 10 minutes browsing the items and told Phillips they were worried their idea for the pile was dumb. Phillips encouraged them to just go with their first instinct. A family from Texas with a young boy stopped by. The boy enthusiastically asked Phillips about her artistic process and picked out a spot to fit a briefcase in the nook of a desk.

One woman gathered some items that reminded her of her father and placed them on the pile. Phillips noted that those items would eventually get covered up and offered to move it to a more visible spot. “It’s OK,” the woman said. “I know it’s there.”

Phillips’ show isn’t really about the stuff. It’s about moments like these.

“Across all of the things that try to divide us, we have this connection through these objects that are totally meaningless,” Phillips said. “Except that we have the power to imbue them with meaning.”


Where: The Bass Museum of Art, 2100 Collins Ave., Miami Beach

When: Until Aug. 13, visitors are welcome to contribute to the artwork by visiting the Harrison Gallery during regular museum hours. The show is officially on view from Aug. 17 to Oct. 22. Guests will not be allowed to touch the artwork after Aug. 13.

Hours: Wednesday-Sunday, noon to 5 p.m., Closed Monday-Tuesday

Info: $15 for general admission ticket; https://thebass.org/art/between-the-mundane-and-the-miraculous/

This story was produced with financial support from The Pérez Family Foundation, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The Miami Herald maintains full editorial control of this work.

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