The Collector: St. Louis artist Bill Keaggy takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary

On a misty May morning Bill Keaggy is up before first light. The 37-year-old artist tiptoes up the creaky staircase of his Tower Grove South home to arrive in his tidy third-floor office. Plopping his lanky, six-foot-three-inch frame behind his laptop, Keaggy powers on the computer and begins work on the myriad obsessions that have made him an Internet sensation.

His eponymously named Web site, www.keaggy.com, might best be described as a kaleidoscope of distractions. Click on any of the dozens of brightly colored blocks that greet visitors to the homepage, and you're thrust headlong into one of the creator's many eccentric flights of fancy.

Most popular are his photo collections 50 Sad Chairs and Grocery Lists, both of which have garnered worldwide media attention and been turned into books in recent months. Less celebrated projects — yet equally curious — are Arbortecture, a site featuring pictures that Keaggy has taken of trees growing out of buildings, and Strike!, in which he attempts to videotape himself throwing a strike in every bowling alley in St. Louis.

Bill Keaggy
Jennifer Silverberg
See more Unspectacular Doors of St. Louis, one of the many collections found on Bill Keaggy's Web site, www.keaggy.com.
Photos courtesy of Bill Keaggy
See more Unspectacular Doors of St. Louis, one of the many collections found on Bill Keaggy's Web site, www.keaggy.com.

In Everything I Ate, Keaggy painstakingly chronicles every morsel of food that passes his lips in any given month. An entry from this past January informs readers that Keaggy ingested a coffee and two green ginger teas for breakfast, three cups of water, a Taco Bell bean burrito and a "cheesy gordita thing" for lunch. Dinner was a feast of Greek meatballs with yogurt, brisket, mixed vegetables, a glass of milk and a Southern Comfort (neat).

On this spring morning the south St. Louis resident plans to add to even more material to the Web site. By the time his wife, Diane Toroian Keaggy, and their children — Liam, age five, and Sorena, three — make their way to the kitchen for breakfast, Keaggy is headed out the door to work on his annual May project, Crap I found on the street during the month of May.

"This is my least favorite month," notes a still groggy Diane, who's learned to tolerate most — but not all — of her husband's passions. "Last May we're driving home with the kids, and Bill coaxes me to get out of the car at a busy intersection to pick up some piece of junk. I nearly got run over. Did I mention it was Mother's Day?"

A far better time of the year — in Diane's opinion — is August. That's when her husband celebrates National Sandwich Month by mandating that the family eat a different sandwich every day. Keaggy later documents the meals for his project I Love Sandwiches: "Wherein we blog all things sandwichy." But August is still months away, and soon Keaggy is cruising the streets on his mountain bike in search of more "crap" to add to his collection.

A few years back Keaggy's car broke down, forcing him to ride his bike to his job as a designer and manager with Xplane, a downtown St. Louis visual communications firm. Ever since, the Ohio transplant makes it a point to pedal his Cannondale to his workplace as often as the weather permits. The six-mile roundtrip serves a dual purpose. It helps the boundless Keaggy unwind. But more important, it provides plenty of fodder for his Web site.

Just 90 seconds into his ride to the Xplane studio this day, Keaggy is shooting down the alley behind Hartford Street when he circles back to observe a chair deposited near a Dumpster. The chair seems as though it were attacked with an axe. After a second of contemplation, Keaggy produces a scratched and battered Canon point-and-shoot from his cargo pants and snaps a few quick photos.

"I probably wouldn't have stopped if it didn't have this crack in it," observes Keaggy, as he focuses his blue eyes through the camera's viewfinder. "But I'd say the crack definitely qualifies it as a sad chair."

A mile down the road Keaggy brings his bike to a halt when he passes a derelict building streaked brown with rust. For years Keaggy has kept an online gallery titled The Rust Series. He pauses momentarily to take a few photos to add to the collection. "I just think that the patterns the rust makes are beautiful," he explains.

Close to downtown Keaggy brakes once more beneath a highway overpass. Someone has spray painted the word "love" on a concrete column. He first noticed the message weeks ago, and immediately thought it would be just right for his collection of photos of amorous graffiti titled I luv u.

The biggest score of the morning, though, comes early on when Keaggy spies the perfect item for his May scavenger hunt: a Crown Royal bag. In a world littered with fountain soda cups, cigarette wrappers and plastic hubcaps, the Crown Royal pouch is a rarefied curio indeed — especially considering that there are people who actually collect the purple felt bags.

The find has Keaggy reminiscing about his days as a small boy collecting key chains. "Why did I collect them? I really can't say. I guess I thought they were cool."

Today, Keaggy's fascination with collectibles is equal parts anthropology and fantasy. With each random item he encounters, he imagines a brief narrative history. He wonders who owned the abandoned kitchen chair left out on the curb. How many people ate breakfast on that chair? What did they talk about?

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