Last Saturday a five-foot wall of cardboard boxes divided Patrick Miceli’s Ravenswood studio space in two. The boxes were filled with 40,000 to 45,000 of the small, brightly colored plastic toys given away with Happy Meals and other fast-food dinners for kids. “Every animated character you can imagine is in those boxes,” Miceli said as he and a friend, bundled up in the unheated room, methodically sorted the toys.

Miceli, an artist who has teaching gigs at five schools, including Columbia and Truman colleges, was getting ready to set up an installation at Saint Xavier University on the far southwest side, where he planned to pile the toys into heaps by color. “They’re just sort of there,” he explained. “You could say it’s a pile of garbage. Maybe indirectly it references Indian burial mounds, like we’re burying ourselves under it.” He’s particularly interested in how the toys reinforce traditional gender roles and teach children to be consumers: “In the animated movie Pocahontas meets and falls in love with this Caucasian blond-haired guy. That movie becomes about romantic love. So kids at a very young age are taking this in, then they go to McDonald’s to get the characters. If you brought a child in here, they could tell you about every one of these.”

For over a decade Miceli has been collecting lost and discarded items and transforming them into large-scale art installations. In 1995 he covered a wall with 3,000 discarded gloves he found while walking along the lake. He retrieved paper cups from fast-food-restaurant trash cans, cleaned them up, and used them for several projects, including one in 1999 where thousands of cups spilled out of a gallery doorway. He started collecting toys ten years ago, not because he had a Super Size Me diet–though he admits he enjoys the occasional burger from Wendy’s–but because he was searching for an electric frying pan to melt wax for paintings. Combing thrift stores and garage sales, he noticed that they always had a shelf or a box full of the toys. “On a lark I bought a few and put them on my dresser,” he says. “I thought, that looks pretty cool. What if I buy more?” People who heard about his collection started contributing to it, and soon he was using the toys in his work. “I’ve tried displaying them in different ways,” he says. “I did patterns on the floor, hung them by strings. The only way I can make the piece more interesting to myself is to make it bigger. Every time someone asked me to do a show with them I’d run out and start buying more.”

The thousands of toys can bring to mind childhood obesity, our culture of immediate gratification, the omnipresence of plastic in the environment. But Miceli insists that he doesn’t intend his pieces as a criticism of consumer culture. “I’m not interested in doing an exposé on the fast-food industry,” he says. “I’ll put them out there in a context, and people can take what they want from that. In my comment books they’ll relate little anecdotal stories about their kids or grandkids–everybody knows what these are. It hooks into all our experiences.”

Miceli has his favorites, including a tiny Big Mac box that transforms into a toy camera as well as a replica of the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. His grandparents lived around the corner from the old Oscar Mayer plant on Sedgwick north of Division. “I remember the Wienermobile would come down the street and give us these little whistles,” he says, “which I still have around somewhere.”

Miceli says his work has taken on a performance aspect. When he was setting up installations at the Thompson Center in 2001 and ’02 passersby kept offering to help out. “They’d spend three, four hours helping me,” he says, “people that were just going to the secretary of state or something.” At the opening for a 1998 show featuring a cup installation, he put on a McDonald’s uniform and served soft drinks from a booth. When viewers finished their drinks they could toss the empty cups into the artwork.

Miceli has sold a few of his pieces. A corporation in New York bought a wall of toys on strings arranged by color. A cup installation was bought by the Altoids company, and he thinks it was later donated to New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art. “I don’t know what actually happened,” he says. “I have trouble enough keeping up with what’s in my studio.” If he ever gets overwhelmed, he figures, he could probably sell the toys piecemeal. “The toys are touted as collectibles–actually the older ones, they’re valued at several hundred dollars each,” he says. “Maybe when I retire I can just sell them on eBay.”

Toying With Heart

When: Lecture and reception Wed 2/15, 3:30 PM; runs through Mon 3/6

Where: Saint Xavier University, 3700 W. 103rd

Price: Free

Info: 773-298-3081

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea.