Boxes Tell A Story

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It is not hard to shop for Charles Waller.

For his gifts, the more obscure the better. One year for his birthday, the artist received a box of circa-1920s mannequin hands. Another year, he was given a box of 1,000 dice.

This past winter, curator Arlene Bujese paid a visit to the illustrator’s East Hampton studio. She sifted through his boxes of found objects and stumbled upon a decaying stone visage, once part of a tombstone, and immediately connected with the artifact.

After that, it was only a matter of minutes before she asked Mr. Waller to participate in her 13th annual East End Hospice fundraiser: the Box Art Auction to be held on Saturday, September 7, at the Ross School for Well-Being in East Hampton.

He answered without hesitation.

“I lost two people that I cared about who were in Hospice,” Mr. Waller said on Wednesday night during the auction preview, which was held at Hoie Hall at St. Luke’s Church in East Hampton. “I was on the floor for four nights, so I got a feel for it, how nice they were. I was happy to do this.”

He gestured to his deconstructed wine box, one of seven arranged in a circle on the first of the three live auction tables—flagged with “Do Not Touch” signs—inside the hall. They were flanked by seven more tables full with silent auction pieces created by nearly 100 East End-based artists, who answered the call to create memorable pieces of art from average cigar and wine boxes.

Every year, Ms. Bujese thinks she has seen it all, she said. And every year, she is wrong.

“There’s something very new and fresh about this collection,” she reported. “A lot of people really extended themselves. You can see the time that’s gone into each.”

There are only a few rules the artists must follow: the piece can’t plug in electrically and it can’t be larger than 18 inches in any direction. The result is anywhere from literal interpretations of the boxes to smashing them up and creating a sculpture.

Pieces in the silent auction start at $125, and live auction box art begins at $250. The event consistently raises more than $50,000 annually for East End Hospice, Ms. Bujese said, which provides care for terminally ill patients and their families on the North and South forks.

“I used to care for a disabled relative for seven years, when I was in England,” participant R.J.T. Haynes explained. “So it’s a charity I very much agree with.”

Inspired by his Cornish roots, Mr. Haynes created a seafaring vignette with his cigar box by cutting it at an angle, gluing it to a plywood base and applying sand and rocks from Cornwall. He sculpted a mermaid figure out of clay, fired it in an oven—“like you’re baking a meringue,” he said—and fitted her with a tress of hair from alpaca wool inside the box. To her left lies the miniature book “Fishy Cast” by Annette Cast, its cover reduced from one of the artist’s landscape paintings.

“It’s three weeks of my life that went into this,” he said. “It’s something you can’t rush, making something like this.”

Nearby, lyricist Sheldon Harnick perused the boxes and remarked to his artist wife, Margery, “There are some wonderful things here.”

“There sure are,” she said, waving goodbye to her smiling husband as she made her way to her piece, “Stand-off at Main Beach”—a pack of dog figurines ganging up on a lone pup with a ball in its mouth as a looming wave, photographed during Hurricane Sandy, threatens to sweep them all away.

It is a scene Ms. Harnick has witnessed many times at the beach, she said.

For her submission, artist Grace Sutton pulled inspiration from her Water Mill garden. She created 12 wooden blocks and painted nature scenes on six sides, creating half a dozen different images.

“My fun is to mix them up and then you can produce any combination of your own,” Ms. Sutton said, rearranging the blocks.

“Oh, I used to love those as a kid,” participating artist Sarah Jaffe Turnbull said while stopping in her tracks to view Ms. Sutton’s artwork. “What a clever idea. I love it!”

“I have small grandchildren,” Ms. Sutton explained. “So they were an inspiration and certainly put me in the mind of blocks.”

“But to make these beautiful images,” Ms. Turnbull mused. “Good job.”

“Thank you.”

Ms. Turnbull continued walking over to her box, named “Sibyl” after a prophetess in Greek mythology. The artist interpreted her as twins and constructed them in ceramic with a raku glaze—a type of thermal shock firing—which are attached to the upright wine box.

“Arlene doesn’t want us to touch these things, but let me show you,” Ms. Turnbull said, picking up her piece. “See, one is on the outside and the other is inside. I feel I might have been a little bit literal because I left the box fairly intact, and I see some people really messed with them.”

Rocco Liccardi covered his cigar box with more than 60 seashells collected from Madeira Beach, Florida. He sprayed them black, then metallic gold and finished them off with a textured spray from Home Depot—his favorite art supply store, he said.

“I kept the original label inside and I filled it with Mardi Gras beads and jablooms,” he explained, lifting the lid.

Ms. Bujese flew out of the crowd and admonished, “Don’t touch!” until she saw it was the artist handling his own piece.

Before artist Will Ryan opened his box, he glanced around and jokingly murmured, “Just want to make sure Arlene doesn’t holler at me. She’s very strict.”

Inside his Arturo Fuente Hemingway Short Story cigar box is a haiku: “Last night short story/Me and you out on a limb/Keep it in the box.” On the lid, Mr. Ryan painted one of his signature “psychedelic” owls.

“That’s my animal spirit that I discovered in Hawaii,” he explained. “I had an amazing experience, which we’d have to have drinks over to really discuss it.”

Photographer Marcel Bally also incorporated his travels into his box this year. He focused on a fishing theme, including a picture of Singapore fishing huts on the top and, inside, images of Maine lobster traps and Middle Eastern fishing nets.

“I had these pictures I’d never used before. This just seemed to be something I hadn’t done yet,” Mr. Bally explained. “I called the box ‘Teach Him to Fish,’ like the proverb.”

Ms. Bujese joined Mr. Bally, who explained that she was his connection to the event. They chuckled conspiratorially.

“That’s right,” she said. “He’s my guy.”

Taking a five-minute break from the bustling crowd, Ms. Bujese sat down on a staircase and surveyed the tables from afar.

“I feel very enthusiastic about this,” she said. “What’s so important is they hold up as art. That’s the thing. That each one has artistic integrity.”

For Mr. Waller, that meant taking the best of his found objects—a mannequin hand cupping the stone face, for which the artist crafted a resin tear, sitting atop dozens of dice—and constructing them into the box, which has wings on either side.

“Inside is the grieving process and this is the flight to heaven, or a spiritual place,” he explained. “I was an illustrator for the New York Times and it was my job to illustrate the story. I took this on as an assignment for grief and recovery.”

He nodded, gently placing his piece back into the pack.

“And this is the story,” he said.

The 13th annual Box Art Auction will start with a silent auction on Saturday, September 7, at 4:30 p.m. at the Ross School Center for Well-Being in East Hampton, followed by a live auction at 6 p.m. Tickets are $75, which include wine and hors d’oeuvres. All proceeds benefit East End Hospice. For more information or to place an absentee bid, call 288-7080 or visit eeh.org.

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