Yellow, red and blue. The color scheme of simpler times.
The colors of Kindergarten classrooms, Superman’s insignia, the Toy Story logo, Wonderbread packaging and, for University of Arizona professor Lisanne Skyler, the color of her family’s coffee table when she was a kid, which happened to be an Andy Warhol sculpture.
Warhol was a leading figure in the pop art movement, the guy who insisted that art didn’t have to be hanging on art gallery walls. Art, he insisted, is all around us.
In 1969, it was certainly all around Skyler, who was just a baby at the time. Her parents, who were just dipping their toes into the world of art collecting, purchased one of Warhol’s Brillo Box sculptures for $1000 that year. Warhol had mass-produced wooden versions of the boxes for Brillo pads–used to get sinks scrubbed across America. Warhol’s sculptures, on the other hands, were largely snubbed across America. Still, her parents thought it was cute, and enjoyed the decorative piece for awhile before trading it for another painting by artist Peter Young.
Over 40 years later, in 2010, the Skyler family coffee table sold at Christie’s (the British auction house) auction for over $3 million.
Skyler, a filmmaker with several projects under her belt, set out to make “Brillo Box (3¢ off),” a film about the Brillo Box’s journey from her family’s living room to the heights of the art world.
“The film had a lot of different beginnings,” she said. “Because we had this photo in our family album [of me with the Brillo Box] and it was always kind of a mystery. ‘How did we get this Warhol? What was the role this had in our family?’”
In 2010, Skyler’s mom told her to check out the Christie’s catalogue, and there it was: the same yellow box that Skyler’s parents had perched her atop for photo opportunities as a baby. Skyler was sure it was the same one because Warhol had produced mostly large white Brillo boxes–the yellow ones were much more rare, and because, at her father’s behest (he wanted there to be evidence that the piece was an authentic Warhol), Warhol had signed the bottom of her family’s Brillo box in red crayon.
Skyler heard about the auction just in time to go film it, and shot intermittently through 2013. The editing process went on until early 2016. Last month, the film debuted on HBO (after running the gamut of international film festivals), and is now streaming on HBO Go, HBO Now and On-Demand. The film is showing at The Loft on Sunday, Sept. 24 at 2 p.m. as a part of National Arthouse Theatre Day celebration. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Skyler and Loft Cinema Program Director Jeff Yanc.
The production of the film, and the marketing for it, turned into a meta experience for Skyler and the crew of Wildcats she had to help her, such as film students Hannah Sweet and Alex Zhao, who helped primarily with the marketing aspects: promoting the film on social media, helping assemble miniature promotional cardboard Brillo Boxes and learning about how a filmmaker’s process doesn’t end when the film is finished.
“It was nice to get an understanding of how do you actually get people to care about what you made,” Sweet said. “It was interesting learning how to personify something that wasn’t human.”
Getting people to care about something sounds a whole lot like Warhol; using the ubiquitous, nonstop presence of social media to do it, even more so.
“What could be more ‘Warholian’ than social media?” Skyler joked.
But that’s not the only way that Warhol’s influence rippled outward from the Brillo Box to the film’s production and marketing team.
Jeanna French, a former student of Skyler’s, ran into her old professor at The Loft shortly after her graduation. French became the editor of the film, working with Skyler on a volunteer basis until the film was picked up by HBO.
“It’s just like this window into this art world that a lot of people don’t get to know about,” she said. “I now have a great appreciation for his work.”
From the desk in her office, where the group of filmmakers gathered, Skyler was beaming. To her, what makes art appealing is exactly what you see in it for yourself, whether it’s a cardboard Brillo Box, a wooden Warhol reproduction, a film about both or even a miniature promotional reproduction of a reproduction.
“I did want to open up that conversation that art at every level matters,” she said.
For the film, Skyler interviewed everyone from her parents to museum curators to artist Peter Young (the artist behind the piece Skyler’s parents traded their Brillo Box for), who lives over in Bisbee. Hearing all of these perspectives on the same object makes you feel like you’re looking at the Brillo Box through a kaleidoscope: this story definitely has more than six sides.
For the art world, a signed Warhol is a rarity. For Skyler’s parents, it was an investment and a charming place to set a cup of tea. For the UA Wildcats involved, it was something altogether new. For Skyler, it’s a tangible piece of a time long since past: a childhood surrounded by art, a budding art movement and her parents pre-separation.
“It was this really fragile, lost moment that I wanted to capture in an intense way,” she said. “There are things in life that pass through you but still impact you, and that’s really important.”
Her parents, Skyler said, bought art that they believed in, and that served as a reminder to her to stay in touch with those values so key to the creative process: trusting your own sense of what makes something beautiful, interesting, worthwhile. Her favorite part?
“I learned new things,” she said. “It very much informed how I make my movies going forward, but also how I teach my students.”