‘Buy A Robot, Get Into Heaven:’ Artist Cooks For Homeless, Uses Cans To Make Art

Published: Thursday, October 20, 2016 - 4:45pm
Updated: Wednesday, February 8, 2017 - 6:06pm

(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
The robots often have bottle caps for eyes.

Did you ever make a tin can phone as a kid, with the two cans and a string? That’s a pretty sweet project, but there’s a guy in Phoenix who takes tin cans a little further. He makes things like robots, sharks - and robot sharks.

But before they become robot sharks, they’re just cans filled with beans or corn or fruit cocktail.

“Robot sale! Buy a robot, get into heaven!”

That was Alexi Devilliers’ sales pitch as he tabled at a recent First Friday art walk in Phoenix. He chatted with passersby, as about 40 of his handmade sculptures sat on a shelf.

“I make toilet paper holders, airplanes that are fans, sharks, dogs, lamps, trucks,” he told customers.

And robots - lots and lots of robots, with bottle-cap eyes, forks for hands and rotund middles, like another well-known robot, R2-D2.

“I have two robots that are in my backyard,” said Stacey Wolosek, a repeat customer.

“One is like the bigger bucket-style robot. It’s all blue. And then I have one that is like a chicken,” she said.

And sometime between purchasing the blue robot and the chicken, she learned the story behind them.

“Buy a robot, get into heaven,” Devilliers said to another customer. “I feed elderly homeless every Saturday, and these are all the cans that are left over. There’s the ticket, right?”

“Well it made me feel better about buying it, that it wasn’t just some mass-produced item, it was actually somebody who’s using the money for something good,” Wolosek said. 

Wolosek took home her third sculpture, a chubby yellow bot.

Devilliers described it as “two tuna cans, and most likely a tomato sauce can.”

And all those cans start in Devilliers’ tiny kitchen. Every Saturday he prepares meals for homeless seniors.

“Now that’s a Mexican casserole, look at that,” he said while cooking last week. 

He set up the casserole, green beans and cookies assembly-line style and piled the food into 110 styrofoam boxes.

This started with bringing meals to some people hanging out in a nearby park. Then Devilliers and his wife made more meals and found more people to pass them out to.

“And then the next week we did the same thing, and then the same thing, and then we would go all the way downtown,” he said.

They hit 13th Avenue and Jefferson, and discovered a large shelter and lots of other services for those who are homeless.

“And then we had about 20 meals left and we were coming down Jefferson and we saw these old people just standing out in front of a door,” Devilliers said. “So they were real happy to take our last 20 meals. Someone opened the door and said, ‘Hey, there’s food out here!’ There were 80 more elderly homeless inside.”

They had found Justa Center, a resource center for seniors. Since then, this has been Devilliers’ Saturday routine for the past six years. Cook the food, pack it up and take it downtown.

“At that shelter, it’s only for elderly, so I thought let’s just go help them,” Devilliers said. “I mean, who’s going to hire somebody 63, 65, 67? He’s barely living on his social security, he can’t afford food.”

“They have nowhere to go. They’re homeless, they’re hungry,” said Diane Nevels, who works at the center as part of the weekend crew. 

She said this shelter is the only place in the area that serves seniors on the weekends.

“The senior count is really high down here,” Nevels said. “Each year the count increases.”

Devilliers always takes the cans from cooking and turns them into sculptures.

But it used to be a side gig. Then the economy and housing collapse cost him his maintenance jobs. He and his wife became pregnant, and she quit her job to care for their son.

“So I devoted full time to just making art, making art, making art,” Devilliers said.

And the cooking became more of a need.

“Because if I don’t feed the homeless, I don’t have the cans to make the material, to make the robots to sell, to pay for my electricity and my gas, to cook the food.”

This has created a circle that feeds itself. And Devilliers doesn’t mind. Serving the shelter is important to him. Plus, making art at home means more time with his family. That’s why every Saturday he cooks, and every First Friday there are robots for sale.

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