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The same sort of questions can be asked about anything. Did the person who constructed the building a hundred years ago ever think that the structure would still be around today, rusting away? Do the graffiti artists who tagged "I love you" still have the same feelings for the message's intended target?
As Keaggy waxes on his Web site, all his projects focus on "the life behind everything we leave behind." But if visitors to the site don't initially grasp that concept, that's fine, too.
"I've seen enough of my own work to think, 'Yeah, some of it is pretty silly,'" posits Keaggy. "But then that's sort of the point. I considered my work to be 'art' in the lowercase form of the term. It's so un-special, it's special."
Bill Keaggy's best-known project, Grocery Lists, began unwittingly one afternoon in 1997. He was shopping for Diane's birthday dinner at the Schnucks at Hampton and Arsenal when he reached down to pick up a yellow scrap of paper on the floor. The discovery was so inconsequential that today he can't remember the exact details of the list other than it was written on a Post-it note.
Still, that particular list piqued his curiosity enough to search for additional grocery lists with each return trip to the supermarket. "When you go to the store, everything you purchase is out there for public display. It all goes through the checkout line," comments Keaggy. "But a person's grocery list is somehow very private. At the same time it's the most ephemeral thing in the world. You write it and then you pitch it."
After two years of collecting, Keaggy placed a dozen or so lists online where they quickly took on a life of their own. Suddenly viewers from around the globe were sending him photos of lists they, too, found during shopping excursions. A grocery store clerk in Iowa mailed packages stuffed full of the lists she'd discovered on the job. The more lists Keaggy placed online, the more people flocked to his Web site.
"This was the late '90s when blogs were just starting to take off," Keaggy recalls. "All of a sudden people started linking to it. It was like, 'Hey, I just came across the dumbest thing ever. You got to see it!'"
Each day some 1,500 people regularly log on to Keaggy's Web site. Following a mention in the referral Web sites Yahoo! and BoingBoing, the number of daily visitors can spike to as many as 25,000 people a day.
In recent years Keaggy's work has also made appearances in more traditional media from the Toronto Star to the Sydney Morning Herald. A 2006 piece in the Los Angeles Times compared Keaggy and other food-related bloggers as the "online foodie equivalents of bobblehead collectors." In a 2004 story in the Sunday magazine of the New York Times, former food editor Amanda Hesser noted that the authors of Keaggy's grocery lists generally fall into two groups: foodies or convenience junkies.
"This growing divide has been discussed in the food industry for nearly a decade, but no statistics have measured it," wrote Hesser. "In these lists, however, the gap is as clear as day. A number of people write 'food,' as if it were like getting gas or picking up dry cleaning."
Megan Lane Patrick, senior editor for Cincinnati-based HOW Books, can't recall how she stumbled across Keaggy's Web site. "I don't know if it was from an art blog or what," says Patrick. "All I know is that I was completely blown away."
Patrick was so impressed with Keaggy's grocery lists that she contacted him out of the blue with a book proposal. The resulting Milk Eggs Vodka is a 232-page tome published last year. In it Keaggy divides hundreds of lists into chapters such as "Bad Spellrs" and "Eating Wrong," in which one memorable list simply reads: "meat, cigs, buns, treats."
Keaggy's second book, the pocket-sized paperback 50 Sad Chairs, came out in February. Deborah Sims, product development manager for the Massachusetts publisher Blue Q, says she, too, stumbled across Keaggy online and immediately sensed that his snapshots of discarded furniture would work well in book form. For 50 Sad Chairs Keaggy gives each forlorn piece of furniture a title. A picture of a black office chair tossed upside down with its wheels spinning in the breeze is labeled Black Hawk Down. A photo of a pool lounge chair sitting atop a storm sewer is called Worst Vacation Ever.
Both books are available through amazon.com and publishers say sales are going well – even if neither book was ever destined to be a bestseller. For Keaggy, though, the sale of the books is less important than having his works published in old-fashioned pulp and print.
"Books have been around for thousands of years, and will be around for thousands more," he muses. "With the Internet, who knows if the programming code I'm using now will even be supported online in ten years?"
To outside observer Jeffrey Yamaguchi, Keaggy's book deals speak to just how respected he is in the online arts community. "For two book publishers to approach you unsolicited, that's pretty unusual, especially considering how much there is online," comments Yamaguchi, who authors the popular craft Web site 52 Projects. "But then few people are even in his league. Whenever I link my Web site to Bill's, I always refer to him as 'project-maker extraordinaire.' He is just one of those gems of discoveries online. He inspires a lot of people."