VINALHAVEN — Sweetie, Valerie Morton’s calico cat, is 23 years old. Sweetie’s treat as a dowager has been sardines, and that left Morton with empty cans that needed to be recycled.

One day several years ago, as she sorted metal from plastic to take to the dump, she flashed on an image of a sardine can holding a red velvet pincushion, a snippet of something she’d seen on YouTube. That’s what she credits as the vision for all that’s followed,

Inspired, Morton took one of the clean, empty cans and assembled inside it a picture made with images cut out from magazines. To give the paper some heft, she pulled a frozen package of meat out, removed some of the Styrofoam tray, and Superglued things together. She liked how it looked.

That day at the dump, she asked Kenny and Luther to save all the sardine cans they could for her. They did, and still do.

Morton grew up on Vinalhaven, not quite born on the island but educated in the school; she’s part of a family who still, mostly, live on the island, and whose members are gifted with many artistic skills. She never thought of herself as an artist, but creativity seems to have been ever-present.

As a child, to pass the time during stretches of bad weather, Morton created dioramas, learned decoupage. Later, she took up photography, built herself a dark room and got good at taking portraits.

Some of the people she photographs now are the visitors to artist Robert Indiana’s Vinalhaven home. She describes herself as his “Girl Friday,” with part-time jobs like bookkeeping and managing correspondence. It was a few years ago, a time when Indiana was ill, that she decided a sardine can might serve as a get well card. The pop star Michael Jackson had just died. Jackson hailed from Indiana, like the island artist, and Morton knew that connection of a shared homeland meant something. Indiana liked the can, so more followed.

At this point, she is 30 cans into the genre. Their first public appearance was May, at the 2014 opening show in Elaine Crossman’s New Era Gallery on Vinalhaven. The sardine can art came as a surprise to the community; people mainly know Morton as the town librarian. She has worked there since 1996, beginning as a volunteer. In 2007, she became the director. She is also a serious genealogist, and calls herself a history buff.

Her home is good testimony. She collects interesting “stuff,” primarily American and British in origin. Sardine cans, it turns out, aren’t the only things she’s obtained from the dump. There’s an impressive chandelier, for example.

Tucked into this veritable museum of collectibles, some of her sardine cans are on display. On the top of a china closet, seven stand in a row. Each has a portrait inside; three women on each side flank a man in the center. It’s King Henry VIII and his wives. Above each can is mounted their family coat of arms. Their edges are beaded, which turns out to be the shiny necklaces worn at Mardi Gras. There are gilt brocade backgrounds befitting royal blood. Labels below identify each woman, not with her name, but rather her fate. In order, they read across as “Divorced,” “Beheaded,” “Died,” “Divorced,” “Beheaded,” and “Survived.” It’s a rather grim comment on how Henry himself might have remembered them.

In fact, most of the portraits/scenarios of Morton’s have a droll quality. Many reference famous people in history. There’s a sentimental one of Anne Frank. Albert Einstein and Georgia O’Keefe are paid respect.

But the one featuring Marie Antoinette holds no sympathy. The guillotine is close behind her. On the can’s top rim, a wedge of cake is pictured. Below, there’s a label: “I never said that.” Morton laughs showing that one, enjoying her insider status as a historian, debunking a myth.

What does it mean to her? Sitting in her kitchen with Sweetie, Morton explains she likes little art projects. She has no big expectations for those sardine cans beyond the pleasure she has in creating them, and doesn’t worry about their commercial or aesthetic appeal to others. She does it to please herself, adding, “When you do it to please someone else, then it’s a job.”

Those who respond to her work often arrive at the same conclusion.

“Well, they do tell me I have a sense of humor,” she said. 

Morton is modest about her oeuvre. Maybe she doesn’t see what others do; her idiosyncratic and playful interpretations are clever and creative art. We get history lessons, a few chuckles, and some new twists on old legends. And all of that is accomplished with found materials in 3-inch by 4-inch containers. Those sardine cans, holding food for thought, have a lot packed into them.