Born in Detroit, raised in Rochester, NY, and trained in painting and sculpture, St Louis-based artist Sarah Frost displays an enthusiasm for found objects that has led to a compelling series of works using mind-boggling numbers of recycled keyboard keys. Over the last two years, her large-scale installations have featured in museum and gallery shows, and one has found a permanent home in the lobby of New York’s James Hotel. Frost has also experimented with smaller, framed compositions.

Why did you decide to use old keys as a raw material?
SARAH FROST: The keyboards are part of a broader exploration. I’m interested in cast-off objects that show their history and evidence of use. I want to know what these objects say about their users as individuals and as part of a culture. The keys grew out of an earlier exploration of obsolete communications technology, including materials such as computer mice, SCSI cables and telephone cords.

The keyboards are appealing because they are ubiquitous – the keys in these pieces are taken from a cross section of computer users: individuals, manufacturing plants, Fortune 500 companies, stockbrokers, small businesses, government offices, a grocery-store chain, and so on. Each key has a unique history and bears the residue of its user – each has been personalized by a wear pattern, handwriting, grease marks and even nail polish. While this individuality is apparent upon close inspection, on this large scale it is lost in the overall mass at a distance. The tension between individuals and whole systems is a theme in much of my work. 

Where do you find so many abandoned keyboards?
I collect them from various electronic recyclers, as well as from garage sales and individuals.

Were you inspired by mosaics?
No. The material itself and the scale I was aiming for dictated the form of the installations.

I’m interested in cast-off objects that show their history and evidence of use

How do you go about making a key wall?
I collect the boards, pull the keys off and then research the site. Each piece is site-specific, so the design is driven by the characteristics of the space it is in and by how the viewer approaches and moves through that space. For the James Hotel, the piece is along a stairwell and adjacent to a marble wall. The upward movement of the stairs and the earth tones of the marble drove my design.

At Laumeier Sculpture Park and Museum, the installation covered the walls of a large space that was full of oddities – different baseboards on different walls, a basement door, a vent, a fire alarm, a light switch and an enormous old gold thermostat. The colour and tonal shifts of the walls related to how the viewer passed through the space, as well as to the characteristics of these oddities. I attach the keys to boards, and it looks as if the keys are glued to the walls themselves.

Are these saleable works?
Someone recently bought one for the first time, so yes!

Do you plan to keep making installations like these, or does the technique have a shelf life?
The pieces are driven by the particular space they are in, so if the opportunity to work in an exciting space comes along, I can see doing more. Yes, there will come a day when I will no longer work with keyboards. But I think that exploring cast-off objects and forms will continue to engage me for a long time.

This piece was originally featured in One Artist One Material. You can purchase a copy here.