Monday, November 17, 2008

Guilt blogging...

Gah! So...6 out of 7 (did I could right?) of my last posts (or should I say "posts") have been my automatically generated diigo bookmarks. Shame on me! And those have been scant because I've barely even been idling away my time on the net.

Gah again, I say, gah!

But enough grunting. Some things that have turned me into a poor (at best) blogger:
  • Cow poop.
  • As mentioned before, The Devil in the White City. At least I finished that one! Post (complete with an analysis of Christian Bale's performance in American Psycho, I hope) coming soon, but I'm not making any promises!
  • The daunting task of learning to use ArcView (and producing some sort of worthwhile conclusions about environmental justice from it).
  • The International Environmental Journalism Summit, recently hosted at CU by the CEJ (sorry about the proliferation of acronyms).
  • The UK television series Skins.
So, out of guilt mainly, I'm posting the feature story that I wrote for Newsgathering a week ago:

Alley Cats

Behind the post office in an alley between Walnut and Pearl Streets in downtown Boulder, an eight-foot tall cat playing a violin grins down on several trash and recycling bins. She rests her welded steel high-heeled shoe –a blue blossom on the toe – on a violin case etched with “Smock ’94.” Not visible from 14th or 15th Streets, Kristine Smock’s sculpture, “Alley Cats,” looks over today’s catch – an overstuffed leather chair and a milk crate – like the patron saint of dumpster divers.

“I do a lot of dumpster diving, looking around for things people have thrown out,” Smock, age 58, says. This artist finds her materials in garage sales, recycling centers, antique stores, and unexpected gifts.

“I had a friend who had an old farm, and he let me dig up the fields,” says Smock. But in the more than twenty years she’s been making art out of trash, she’s found the landscape has changed. “It’s harder to find. People have had their stuff cleaned up.”

Today, after finishing a post-workout lunch of a fried egg, Smock will be painting. Instead of a canvas, she’ll be using old boards.

Holding a fly swatter aloft, Smock stalks after the buzzing insect. “My mother taught me how to recycle as a child. She was a recycling queen,” Smock says. “And it just kind of went into my art.”

A matter of economy

As soon as humans starting making trash, they started making art from it.

“There’s a huge tradition in folk art to basically make art out of whatever is available,” says Richard Saxton, assistant professor of art and art history at the University of Colorado. “And oftentimes whatever is available happens to be trash that nobody else wants.”

“It’s a matter of economy that artists tend to use salvaged trash as a material,” Saxton says.

Smock can confirm this. When she first started scavenging for materials, she says, “part of the reason is probably because I was poor.” But it was more than a simple matter of economy: it was a matter of vision. Smock would look at piles of scrap metal and see, “something that looked like a head or an arm.”

And Libby James looks at spent tea bags and sees faces and landscapes.

Reading tea leaves

James lives in Fort Collins. The two weeks she just spent as an election judge – she leans in as if telling a scandalous detail – afforded her plenty of time to work on her cards, “once filled with tea, now filled with love.”

“People see things in them,” James says. The best part is everyone sees something different.

A writer and talented runner (at 72 her kids still can’t keep up), James says, “I have no artistic ability – I don’t!” Instead, emptying tea bags and creating cards is meditative and therapeutic. “Sometimes I draw,” – flowers and vines snaking through the brown tea stains – “and sometimes I just let things happen,” she says.

James is in her third year of retirement. She previously worked in Cheyenne, Wyo. helping young single parents learn job skills and prepare for the GED. She got the idea to use teabags as a material when a friend sent her a card from a village in Africa.

“I saved it, framed it, and thought, gosh, I could do that. Then they started evolving,” says James.

It’s not surprising her inspiration came from another continent. “You’ll find some of the best examples of recycled art from developing countries,” said Saxton. It’s what happens when creativity meets resourcefulness. “African toys built out of recycled pop cans. Also folk art in the US, from homemade yard signs to roadside attractions.”

James first started using her own tea bags – round ones, square ones, whatever she had on hand. Then friends from her writers’ group and book club started saving them. “Now I have a lifetime supply,” she says.

As for the tea itself? “That goes in my compost,” says James. It will eventually disappear into her garden.

James has a philosophy that all things – like tea, which once brewed looses its essence – are temporary. “All of these cards are going to get thrown away,” she says, one way or another.

The knowledge of her art’s transience is liberating.

Art not just for art’s sake

Using found object as art has come a long way since Marcel Duchamp placed a urinal in a gallery with the title, “Fountain.”

The ability of artists to rethink every day objects – like tea bags, or aluminum cans, or old carpet – and redefine what it means for something to be “used up” is translating into the manufacturing world.

“We’re rethinking how we make things,” says Saxton. “Creative people in the arts have inspired change.” Saxton sees this most clearly in architecture and design.

“There’s a lot of experimentation going on in architecture with cast off materials,” says Saxton. “You can bale anything. And anything you can bale, you can build out of.”

But while some artists are using recycled materials because they are functional, inexpensive and sustainable, others use them to convey a message of environmental activism. Lynne Hull of Fort Collins builds sculptures that are visually arresting – combining aged, twisted snags with recycled boards and metals – to create habitat for migrating birds. Chris Jordan of Seattle digitally stitches together photographs of consumer items – cell phones, plastic bottles, computer motherboards – to show the immensity of consumption.

Looks like trash

When Smock gave directions to her home in Lyons, she described a beige two-story house, as if it would be otherwise indiscernible from every house on the block.

She didn’t mention the purple and orange door with a hand painted yellow doorframe. Or the green, blue and orange bowling balls mounted atop steel rebar like a Technicolor, candy-coated version Vlad the Impaler’s yard. Or the plywood apple, large enough to sled on, mounted in a tree. Or the limp piece of galvanized rubber, once inflated though it’s not clear as what, hanging from a branch.

In recent years, Smock has scaled back her use of trash. In part, it’s because welding is hard on the hands, and Smock has taken up the mandolin.

“I still want to do projects about garbage – I love it,” Smock says. “I like the idea of transformation. You take something that no one wants or they find ugly and you turn it into an other, maybe even some beautiful.”

Smock has transformed a rusted bike chain into the spine of a horse, barbed wire into a bird’s nest, silverware and scissors into a human figure, and plastic bottles into a cloud. She has also made a series of concrete masks.

For several years, her art was part of the Sculpture Trail in Lyons, although that project has been cancelled due to lack of funding. She has public installations – murals and sculptures – in Boulder, Denver, and her home state of New Jersey.

“That about wraps it up. That’s my career,” she laughs. “And some of them are deteriorating.”

Smock’s house is full of her own work – painted cabinets in the kitchen with music notes lacquered on, a single wire bent into a female figure, a type of three-dimensional sketch – and gifts from artist friends.

Some of Smock’s pieces carry a blatant environmental message – like the Statue of Liberty she made representing forms of renewable energy – but ultimately, that isn’t what motivates Smock or carries her through the inevitable criticism.

“Some people said ‘that looks like trash.’ But that’s not the majority,” she says. “A lot of people liked it, especially kids. If kids like it, you know it’s successful.”

Viewing the artwork of Kristine Smock and Libby James in Boulder:

You can find Kristine Smock’s sculptures between 14th and 15th Street on Lawry Lane and at the main branch of the Boulder Public Library outside the children’s museum.

Libby James’ cards are for sale at Art Mart (1222 Pearl Street).

Image from Flickr user dbking shared using a Creative Commons license.

1 comment:

Julia Gulia said...

Love the article, Jordan! These people sound so interesting, I want to sit and listen to them all day...