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

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Bill Keaggy

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,, 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.

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?

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 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."

In 2006 Keaggy displayed his work at the Center of Creative Arts (COCA) in an exhibit called Junk Science. The show included his sad chairs and grocery lists, as well as even more obscure collections such as his Rocks Shaped Like Shoes.

COCA gallery director Belinda Lee says Keaggy stands out for his ability to blend high-tech and low-tech media through the use of vintage cameras and antique light boxes that display some of his more modern images. But most refreshing, adds Lee, is Keaggy's unassuming nature.

"I work with a lot of artists," notes Lee. "Bill has this delightful quality to take his work seriously without taking himself too seriously. And I think that quality is definitely reflective in his work."

Still, the question can be asked: Are all of Keaggy's eccentric interests really must-see material?

Last October the Rev. Robert Shields of Dayton, Washington, passed away at the age of 89. From 1972 to 1997 Shields kept what is often considered the world's longest diary. Seated on the back porch of his home and surrounded by six I.B.M. electric typewriters (in case one broke), Shields recorded his life in five-minute intervals. Everything he thought, said or dreamed of entered its pages. So, too, did mention of his trips to the bathroom, the contents of his junk mail and temperature readings from inside his home. Nothing was too mundane to escape his diary.

Today, Shields is often cited as the poster boy for the condition known as hypergraphia, the compelling urge to write. The compulsion — the opposite of writer's block — is said to have afflicted better-known artists, including Vincent van Gogh and novelists Fyodor Dostoevsky and Lewis Carroll. Could Keaggy suffer a similar ailment?

"I hope not," opines Keaggy's wife. "Those people were all insane!"

Keaggy acknowledges that he's been accused of suffering some sort of obsession. He even has a disclaimer on his Web site to address the issue. It reads:

"This web site is a collection of visual indiscretions. It serves no purpose and despite what you may think, it does not waste a lot of my time — just yours."

"Sure it can appear that I'm OCD or plain old obsessive at times," reflects Keaggy. "But I've been doing this for a long time. It's not like I'm updating the site every day."

Keaggy has his own name for what he does. He calls it "publishmentalitarianism."

"In high school, my friend and I loved the word 'antiestablishmentarianism,'" he explains. "It seemed so made up. So when I needed a search term for my Web site I created the word 'publishmentalitarianism' as a way to describe my interest in publishing. In hindsight it was probably stupid idea. Not many people search that term."

It was also while in high school in the small northwestern Ohio town of Columbiana that Keaggy first fell in love with publishing. The romance was sparked at home as Keaggy recuperated from an accident with a pair of electric hedge clippers.

"We were cutting my grandma's lawn and doing some yard work when a pair of trimmers ripped through Bill's fingers and cut into the bone," recalls Keaggy's best friend growing up, Adam Liber. "At the time we were really into freestyle BMX and since Bill couldn't ride that summer, he got this idea to put together a zine dedicated to bikes and music."

They titled their crude publication ACC, an abbreviation of their favorite bike route though town, which they called the Atomic Circle of Chaos. Keaggy designed and wrote articles for the zine. Liber served as the photographer. Another friend wore the title of music editor.

The buddies laid out the magazine with scissors and glue, photocopied it and sold it at the local bike shop for $1 each or traded it with other BMX enthusiasts. Before long the Keaggy was mailing out copies of the publication to fans as far away as Germany.

"It was such a kick," says Keaggy. "We were at the center of this circle of people who were all into the same things. It's an incredible feeling knowing that you are partially responsible for something, instead of just consuming."

Keaggy would continue publishing ACC through his undergraduate days at Youngstown State and Ohio University, where he earned degrees in picture editing and page design. After college he and Liber moved to St. Louis to take jobs with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch — Keaggy as a designer for the old Sunday magazine and Liber as art director for the "Get Out" section.

"I remember when Bill came in for the job interview," recounts former Post-Dispatch graphic designer Dave Gray. "He had this portfolio full of these Xeroxed magazines he'd created. You could just tell that for him design wasn't a job. It was his life."

Gray would later leave the Post-Dispatch to devote his full energies to his visual communications firm, Xplane, which helps corporations explain complex ideas and concepts through graphics. In 1999 Gray brought Keaggy aboard as the company's creative manager.

"One of the first things he did was launch our company blog," says Gray. "At the time, I didn't have any idea what a blog was, but Bill is one of the pioneers. He was one of the first people to blog and do it well."

In 2004 Keaggy returned to work at the Post-Dispatch as the paper's features photo editor before once more joining Xplane in 2007. His current title is "knowledge manager," making him the go-to person for any questions regarding the internal operations of the company.

"Bill is the kind of guy who has never really had to look for a job," says Gray. "He's an artist. For him, it's never a money thing. It's being able to do what you love — be it work, his Web site or whatever."

Diane Keaggy says that her husband provided few hints that he would become the prolific project-maker he is today when the two started dating in 1996. At the time both were employed at the Post-Dispatch, where Diane continues to work as an arts and entertainment reporter. "When we first started dating our nights were spent drinking and going to concerts," she says. "Afternoons were spent hung-over on the couch."

In certain respects Keaggy's online record-keeping is little more than a 21st-century extension of the hobbies passed down from his parents. Bill and Joan Keaggy still drive around Columbiana looking for what they call "roadkill" — discarded furniture and other items — that they can take back home to repair. Like their son, the Keaggys make it a point to document all of life's details, whether it's Bill insisting that all houseguests sign their names to the kitchen table or Joan recording the exact mileage of their excursions away from home.

"We've been to St. Louis 33 times to visit Billy," states Joan matter-of-factly. "That's over 30,000 miles roundtrip. It's enough to circle the globe one-and-a-half times."

Yes, the old apple doesn't fall far from the tree, concedes Diane. But then, that's not necessarily a bad thing. "I hope our kids view the world as closely as Bill does," she says. "At its core, I see what he does as journalism. It's recording and photographing the events that don't make headlines but are nevertheless very much a part of life."

Keaggy's latest endeavor is an online slideshow of photos he's found at flea markets and yard sales called 20th Century Anonymous.

Similar projects abound on the Internet, yet Keaggy strives to set himself apart by posting one solitary photo from each year of the 20th century. To do so, each photo must be marked with a date. Thus far Keaggy has collected roughly 30 pictures, beginning with a sepia-tinged photo of a mother and her baby from 1901. The album currently ends at 1984, with a picture of an elderly woman blowing out the birthday candles on a cake.

The old snapshots naturally lead Keaggy to ponder the lives of the people who are captured on the film. He wonders if any of them are still alive today and contemplates how their photos ended up for sale. "It's probably quite sad when you think about it," he opines. "Many of them probably died without any heirs. Their photos — like their other possessions — ended up for auction at the estate sale."

Old photos like these are what first sparked Keaggy's interest in photography. He can only hope that the pictures he takes today will prove similarly inspiring to future generations.

"I remember my parents had this old photo album of my hometown, Columbiana," he says. "The photos were remarkably simple. They were just shop fronts or random people at the park in this small town. In my opinion, those photos are so much more valuable today. They document the ordinariness of the time."

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