It's 5:45 a.m. Even the sun has the good sense to sleep in a little longer. Sitting in his car, Pea Hix explains why it's so important to be parked in front of an innocuous little white house in Chula Vista at the crack of dawn.
The estate sale won't start for another two hours, but Hix wants to make sure he's the very first person in the door. As he puts it, "If I'm not one of the first 25 people in there, I might as well forget it." A clipboard left outside the home by the agency handling the estate sale ensures that will happen. He waits, keeping his eye on the clipboard to make sure no one tries to rip off the page bearing his name and steal his No. 1 spot. Apparently, that's a very real threat. It's a competitive business, with a regular cast of villains and allies, but Hix revels in it.
"I've always been a junker," the 42-year-old says as he waits for the estate sale to open. "I grew up with my mom taking me to thrift stores. It's in my blood. I've been doing my eBay business for 15-plus years. I never get sick of getting up early in the morning and looking for stuff."
Most collectors can probably relate. The thrill of the hunt is only surpassed by the triumph of uncovering a rare record, vintage jacket or funky 1960s salt-and-pepper shakers. For Hix, it's antique photographs, 35mm slides, old family films, taped recordings, vinyl records and other ephemera. While he sells most of his scores on eBay, the leftover stuff becomes the vehicle for his unique, quirky art.
Hix makes composite art from these found objects. For instance, he takes two old photo slides that complement each other and layers them to create interesting, often peculiar images—like a skier climbing a snowy mountain that's inhabited by a gigantic lizard, or a Godzilla-like pelican looming over the Golden Gate Bridge. He posts the images on peahix.tumblr.com.
At no point in that early-morning wait does Hix drink coffee. When 8 a.m. hits, and the crowd outside the house is 100- deep, Hix's name is called. He gets a five-second head start on the person right behind him, and he takes advantage of it.
He bolts into the house, moving through each room swiftly. His fingers flip through stacks of photographs like manic spiders. Other shoppers zoom around him on their own pursuits. Within 20 minutes, he's out the door, carrying a small stack of finds, ready to move on to the next sale.
When out searching, Hix buys all the slides he comes across. The older they are, the better.
"I like to be the guy who finds the stuff that's been in a box for 60 years," he says.
The pictures depict memorable times that were once important enough to capture but eventually discarded in a garbage can or disposed of at a yard sale. Hix takes those unwanted memories and appropriates them to create new stories.
"For me, the most important element of any art is the element of mystery," he explains. "The dilemma for any artist is figuring out how you inject mystery into your art, and usually everyone has to solve that their own way.
"For me, the mystery comes from finding something and not knowing the full context of that object. It's important for me not to know the person. If a person said, Oh, I have a bunch of photos I took in the '70s,' it's not interesting to me. I'm more interested in finding those things in more serendipitous circumstances. A photo in an album is not interesting. If I found it in a gutter Downtown, by itself, suddenly that image has a whole new resonance."
Hix sees found objects as collaborators in his art. With them, he wants to create a new story and re-contextualize the figures and scenes in the discovered images.
The slide composites are just one part of his experiments with found art. Hix organized a Found Film Jam, a mini film festival for him to share his video discoveries. He also once created a one-episode public-access television show called Lucas & Friends, 28 minutes of found sound clips paired with old photographs. You can find it on YouTube by searching for the title. Later, he turned the TV show into a live performance.
It's not just a one-way street, though. He wants to give others art to find. Hix is also known to leave tapes with labels like "Grandma playing the organ, 1968" in a thrift store or on the street. When played, the tapes blare out crazy organ sounds. At the end, his voice lets the listener in on the game. These are just a few of the experiments he's conducted during the last 20 years.
"I'm interested in the variety of ways that memory transforms. We think of memories as reliable. We think of them as a filter for our experiences," he says. "I like playing with the idea of photographs, audio and film as being ostensible."
For Hix, being part of that memory isn't the draw; it's taking the evidence and presenting it in an interesting way, encouraging himself and others to experience these snapshots and wonder what happened to the people and places in them. He doesn't want his art to provide an answer. He just poses the question.
"People's memories are the most intimate thing they have," he says. "What are the circumstances in which someone would abandon their memories? We almost never find out, and I don't want to find out."