Archive for February, 2010

He stands vigilantly at the park’s westernmost limits looking towards the hydroelectric dam and the bridge that leads to New Albany, Indiana.  The tailwaters below the dam are a favorite spot for fisherman who have boats.  This is a good spot if one is hoping to hook into a big catfish.  Under the spillway,  however, can be rough.  If due precautions aren’t taken,  it can be a dangerous place for boaters.  That’s why the lifeguard remains on duty.

The lifeguard is a unique individual and his commitment is total.  His very body can be used as a flotation device!  In a more conventional emergency, he is expert at throwing his buoy near the distressed person in the water and pulling them to safety.  On this stretch of the Ohio River, the currents can be especially unpredictable.  There are many warning signs around the park and Interpretive Center to call attention to this danger.  Heed them.

His weather-beaten visage is in contrast to his heart of gold.  Over the years his walnut-colored eyes have seen much.  Despite the sometimes foolhardy antics of his fellow creatures, he still believes everyone is worth saving.  That’s the broad brush he paints with.  It’s nice knowing that if you needed to…you could put your life into his hands.

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Walking through the willow habitat two days a go, I came upon a dead Ring-billed Gull laying belly down in the last of our snow.  It was missing its head and I thought some other animal had made off with it.  When I turned this bird over on its back, the head was detached and hidden under the body.  A single spot of blood on its belly was the only other sign of damage that I could see.  I assumed that a bird of prey had captured it and perhaps disturbed, had abandoned it before it could make it a meal.  I had never been as close to this type of gull and I admired its white feathers, red orbital ring, and the black banding on its bill that gives this bird its name.  I placed the head in proximity to the body, and took this final portrait.  Then I walked away.

That was last Saturday and I returned the next day to explore a different area of the park.  Spring is near and the endemic birds are starting to feel it.  I watched a pair of Downy Woodpeckers courting and the Cardinals, Song Sparrows, and Carolina Wrens were all singing.  I can’t wait for the migratory birds to start passing through!  As I was walking along, I came across yet another dead Ring-billed Gull and thought how odd I should see another one of these so soon after seeing the first.  At least with this one, I could see that something had been eating it.  I took its picture too and left it.

About a hundred yards away and near the concrete staircase that leads up to the Interpretive Center, I found a third dead gull!  I carefully examined this bird, but could find no signs of damage.  This bird was so fresh that death had yet to stiffen it.  I saw no evidence that a bird of prey had captured it.  I guessed that perhaps one of the few Peregrine Falcons that live near here might be a good candidate for our gull killer, but now I’m not as sure.  The bit of damage I found with the other two, may have resulted from some ground dwelling animal finding an opportunistic meal on the riverbank?  What happened to this third bird?  Was it sick, frozen, or had its internal clock reached its expiration date?  Here are images of this unfortunate, but still beautiful bird.

This was how I found it lying on the rip-rap.  I carefully lifted it up and spread its wings for a photograph.  I could see the diagnostic white spot among the black tip of each wing and the dusty yellow of its webbed feet.  The bit of red along the gape of its bill (which I first mistook for blood) is a sign that this bird was approaching breeding condition. 

Our Ring-billed Gulls arrive at the Falls of the Ohio in autumn and overwinter.  By the spring, they usually migrate back to the Great Lakes region where they are among the few gulls found in the interior of the country.  In the years I have been visiting here, I had never come across a dead one before and now I have seen three in two days!  Has anyone else out there recently observed something similar happening with this species?  I can’t end on such a sad note.  And so, I offer this last image of Ring-billed Gulls doing what they do best…flying.

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I really needed this day and it did not disappoint.  The sun came out and the only snow left is in the deepest, shaded part of the woods.  The river was lower than I thought it would be and I followed the meandering driftwood line from east to west.  I picked up “parts”  for the day’s sculpture and filled my bag.  When I had enough stuff, I stopped, found a cozy log to sit on and dumped the contents of my bag on the sand and gravel.  I pulled my trusty knife from my pocket and unfolded the sharpest blade.  With the constant sound of running water around me, here is this day’s work.

I found a nice expanse of exposed limestone and began this figure.  It’s a little different in that it’s made using three chunks of Styrofoam. There are plenty of beaver-chewed willow sticks all around which will work for the figure’s limbs.  I wanted to see if I could make a figure that’s a little less static than usual.  I see this figure as having a pelvis and a lower back that flexes.  While I am making this piece, I’m breathing deeply, and thinking over events of the past week.  Yesterday was a memorable day because a committee I serve on made a big announcement about a public art strategy for Louisville.  For many years I have been an active member of the Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Public Art, or MACOPA.  I chaired the Preservation Committee which always seemed kind of ironic to me since my personal art is far from the material concerns and needs of Metro Louisville’s monuments.  With all the movers and shakers of our art community assembled in Metro Hall,  Mayor Abramson announced the plan we commissioned from CREATIVE TIME that was distilled from the many round table discussions with stakeholders that were held over the course of a year.

In brief, this is what’s being proposed.  The current committee will reform as two groups.  The first group will be attached to our metro government and will manage and care for the city’s existing public art inventory.  The more novel group, will become an independent 501-(C)(3 ) that over time would be able to commission and fund artist driven public art ideas.  As you can imagine during these hard economic times, no one wants new taxes and in Louisville, the area’s developers are not in favor of a percent for art program.  In fact, we learned that across the country, percent for art programs weren’t doing as well as you may first think.  So, what will be the funding mechanism that will allow this new not for profit to prosper?  Already on the books, is a regulation for construction projects exceeding 100, 000 square feet to provide some aesthetic amenities (even art).  Developers can now opt to give that money to the new public art committee to be used to commission new works in unique sites across Metro Louisville.  This still requires approval from the Metro Council, but since the business community likes this idea, it should get passed.  In two years, the new committee (tentatively called COPA, Commission on Public Art) will hire a professional director and staff and begin with a couple trial projects.

There are benefits from forming a more professional, stand-alone group.  Our public art committee has consisted mostly of volunteers who over the years have been able to realize a few modest projects.  Louisville has been fortunate to have had recent civic leaders who at least recognized how useful public art can be in touting the city’s quality of life.  But what happens if a new administration comes along that isn’t as pro art?  They could decide to withhold resources and kill the program.  Having the new public art organization exist apart from government is designed to protect it from less friendly administrations.

Once the coffers become full, artists can submit proposals for public art projects.  To manage these projects, artists must partner with a fiscal agent, like another existing not for profit art organization, to provide some financial oversight and navigate the various legalities involved in such work.  We shall see in a few years if this will be effective?  The transition from the present committee to the new commission will be crucial.  I will be looking forward to a different spirit that looks at art in public spaces as being more than just placing objects on a site.  When MACOPA chose CREATIVE TIME over other good candidates, we were hoping their more contemporary approaches would find resonance in Louisville.  Public art does not need to be permanent art.  I’m proud to have done my small part in this process and will be interested to see what happens.  For now, I’ll keep practicing my own special brand of public art on the banks of the Ohio River.

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It’s official, the winter doldrums have set in.  Like many parts of the country we are already above “normal” snowfall amounts and more is on the way.  Coming out to the Falls has become an endurance contest especially when the wind is blowing.  Looking through my past posts, I have become wistful for the sunshine and bird song.  Walking along the river’s edge, I found enough material for a new figure and this latest post.

He’s a bit of a stark fellow…just Styrofoam, sticks, coal, and plastic.  There is more material here, but the snow is covering it up.  Walking both the edges of the river and woods, an idea  in the form of discarded aerosol cans presents itself.  I will start with this first can.  It’s another reminder to me on how the environment in Kentuckiana has changed within my memory.

Although this is anecdotal, it seems to me and others who live here that mosquitos are more plentiful than ever.  In the early history of the settling of this area there were many more wetlands and Yellow Fever was a real threat to life.  Over time, the swamps were drained and the native mosquitos become more of a seasonal nuisance.  Now it seems we cycle through several different species of mosquitos during the peak months.  I’m not an expert on these flies, but I know we have small and large ones, mosquitos that have stripes on their legs and they all don’t appear at the same time.  As of a couple years ago, we also now have ones that transmit West Nile Fever.  Accidently introducing exotic species is upsetting the ecosystem and is a form of pollution as much as this found can of repellent.

Readers of this blog will notice how I have a penchant for including images of automotive tires of all kinds.  To me, they are symbolic of both our ingenuity and our willingness to overlook the consequences of said ingenuity.  Mosquitos love them because they need foul, standing water to breed.  Whether left standing up or lying down, the interior of a cast-off tire holds water perfectly.

I found these cans within a small area and set up my figure to bear witness.  Their contents once included a lubricant, an automotive cleanser, and spray starch.  I found another can further down the shoreline and wondered if we really need this product too? 

Call me old-fashioned, but I like my cheese in a more conventional way.  Despite the “REAL” assurance, can it be authentic cheddar cheese if it shoots out of a can?  That makes me want to scream!  Makes me wonder if it really is that much different from the mosquito repellent?  If I smeared myself with this stuff…would it keep mosquitos away?  Perhaps I can apply for a grant and run that experiment?  Looks like another case of said ingenuity!

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The six or so inches of snow that quieted Louisville over the past two days inspired a spontaneous celebration of a traditional form.  The conditions were just right for an impromptu snowman festival!  Nearly everywhere I travelled through the city I found these ephemeral sculptures gracing both public and private spaces.  Before it became too late in the game, I grabbed my camera and recorded a few images which I’m presenting here.  I went through Tyler Park, the Douglas Loop neighborhood, the Highlands, and the Shelby Park area and in a matter of a couple hours and found some interesting creations.  I had so much success in a relatively short amount of time and distance, that the possibility of hundreds of snowmen existing scattered throughout the city gave me an extra reason to smile!

For those of you who have followed my riverblog, this may seem like a departure, but it really isn’t.  I count the making of snowmen, scarecrows, and other seasonal folk art figures among the influences for my polystyrene art.  I’m working with that same impulse towards figurative expression that people acknowledge when they make a snowman.  Can this be art?  I certainly believe so.  A friend of mine once wrote that art was turning the ordinary into the extraordinary.  When you mix intention with a user-friendly material like snow, than the creation of art is within most people’s grasp.  Eventually, when these things melt, the water that comprises them will at some point reach the river.  Considering how much snow has fallen over the Ohio River Valley, I would expect to see high water around here.

The basic idea for a snowman hasn’t changed much.  Take three snowballs and stack them in graduated size from largest to smallest and use whatever is on hand to form features and accessorize.  The use of a carrot for a nose has become a beloved standard.  It’s been interesting to see how closely people have adhered to the snowman ideal and where variation or invention has occurred.  Most of what I’ve seen over the last couple of days has been fairly traditional, but there were a few nice surprises to keep things lively.  I came across a few snow creations that demonstrated both imagination, teamwork, and skill.  Here are a few more single figures.

I imagine children and family at work on these beloved sculptures.  It’s no accident that so many of these snowmen are close to the front door of the house.  In this way, they are very site specific. They are meant to be seen and commented upon.  Most of these snowmen, if they have arms, are rather feeble.  For practical reasons, it is just too difficult to make an arm out of snow unless it is a part of the main body.  I had to laugh at the one sporting what appears to be a wooden samurai sword!  When you pair two or more snowmen together then you create another dynamic.  Take a look.

The snow figures above I thought were very successful in a “Miro-esque” sort of way.  The work on the right looks like a dog sitting up and begging.  These are fairly large works and whoever made them must be an old-hand at snow sculpture because both works also have holes in them as expressive elements.  Check out this trio of works.  The use of deer antlers on the smallest sculpture is an unusual touch.

And now for a few more animal snow sculptures…how about this seal! It’s very effective and simple.  The colorful scarf leads the eye right to the details that form the face.  I like the way twigs are used to suggest whiskers.

This bear sculpture by Tyler Park is one of my favorites.  I walked by it at night and there were also Christmas lights behind it!  Again, the use of twigs provides just the right amount of detail in the form of claws on the paws.  I think the eyes might be walnuts?  In this piece, the snow arms work.

Resting sphinx-like in front of an apartment building is what I presume is a reindeer or stag.  If it weren’t for the small branches suggesting antlers, I would have guessed this is a dog.  The lack of any other materials makes me believe this is the unplanned work of a child.  It has a smudge for a nose.

Perhaps the oddest piece I encountered was this modest sized figure.  What set it apart aside from the more extensive use of clothing, is the mask covering the face.  I did a double take on this one because the white mask didn’t fully register until I was right next to it.

I like that there is a time limit to a snowman’s existence.  For as long as the weather remains cold, and people leave it alone, then the work will be around to bring a little joy to all who see it.  For many adults, it is a pleasant reminder of childhood winters with its promise of missed school days.  Around here, the temperatures are dropping into the single digits overnight and there is more snow on the way.  For the time being, the city’s snowmen are safe and in good company.

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Over the weekend I went to the frigid Falls and was amused by all the balls I found that recently washed up during a period of high Ohio River water.  So, I photographed what I came across to add to my Balls of the Ohio Collection.  This is a subset that includes balls with snow on or around the white stuff.  As I write this, Louisville and the surrounding area is expecting more wintery weather tonight with accumulations of snow and ice.  It is, however, going to be nothing like the amounts that have already hit parts of the east coast! When I walk my familiar stretches of the riverbank, I hope that some day, I might eventually find something of value, but instead it’s stuff like this or worse!  For your pleasure, here are more balls that were washed, thrown, or kicked into the river to land at the Falls of the Ohio.

The first ball shown is a regulation size basketball in yellow and purple.  I think those are Los Angeles Laker colors?  I followed that with this rather small, but patriotic, flag-inspired ball I photographed with my hand over my heart!  I recall seeing tons of flag-inspired everything in the aftermath of September 11.  For three years after that event, I photographed many things I came across in Louisville bearing either an American flag design or inspired by the stars and bars.  I reasoned that my city was not that much different from what was happening in the rest of the country and was thus representative of the country at large.  It was an interesting experiment on how the meaning of something you think you know is changed by its context.

This golf-inspired, rubber, yellow ball is about the size of a baseball.  Over the years, I have found several spheres of this exact type.

This Spider-Man ball was the most colorful ball that I have found in a while.  Judging from its condition, it must not have been in the river very long.  The image above is one side of this ball…here’s its opposite side.  Makes me want to break out in song…”Spider-man, Spider-man, does whatever a spider can…”

This was a bit of an oddity, I found a couple balls with numbers on them.  I think this was inspired by the lottery or bingo?  Number 6 anyone?

We’re Number #1… we’re #1, here’s a soft cloth ball for baby.  At first I thought this was a hacky-sack, but realized upon approach, it’s too big.

Lastly, I came across this regulation sized football in the process of washing up on shore.  Although it doesn’t have snow on it, I did find it at the same time I came across these other balls.  It was only after I got home and downloaded my pictures, did I see that there is hand writing on this pigskin.  When I go back to the river, I’m going to try to find this ball again.  It might have an interesting message written on it that will offer a clue to where it originally came from.  Until next time…

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On a very chilly day and after a snow storm, I was able to visit the Falls and take stock of the happenings.  The snow came quickly and from an eastern direction.  You can see that from the trees where snow built up on one side leaving the opposite side clean.  As I had suspected, the rising river from the previous week had played havoc on my trusty studio site.  It took me awhile to recognize where that spot had been.  I will have to wait until after the snow leaves to determine if any of the materials I had stored there are still in the area.  As for the sculptures I had left to weather in place…

… they are still there, but disarticulated.  The rising water level with its floating logs and driftwood, knocked everything down, and carried parts of my work, back out into the river.  The image above is what remains of Pot Belly, a large work from several posts ago.  I found his head, but he was missing all of his features.  His partner, Lorraine, was near him, but had suffered the same fate.  Further down the park, I came across Penguin Boy (sans life-jacket and head) and what was left of the uncle figure.  By now, I am over any sense of loss.  I will miss coming to that particular spot under the willows, but I know I will make other make-shift studios and they too will wash away.  As for the large pieces of Styrofoam that are still around, I probably will recycle those into other sculptures provided they stay.  This time of year and early spring are usually when we get the high waters.  With all the snow that has fallen (even more is scheduled in a couple of days) the resulting melt water will overwhelm this part of the park again.  Perhaps it will flood several more times, who knows?  This is all just a part of the process.

Making things is the best antidote in a situation like this.  I might be temporarily rootless, but my need to make images from objects remains strong.  I tell myself that coming out here, especially on such an inhospitable day is a sure sign of dedication and commitment to my art.  Perhaps it is, but who really cares except me?  When you strip it down, it has more to do with my own needs than anything else.  I muse about this blog being a vicarious way for me to recall some of my work.  Anyway, laid out on a snowy log are the materials I found to make that day’s figure.  By this time, my finger tips are numb which makes handling small objects more difficult.  While I am fumbling away, this squirrel is watching me as I work and I’m having a regular conversation with it.  I ask how the winter is going and apologize for not bringing any food with me among other topics of mutual interest.

With the added distraction from the squirrel, here’s what I came up with on this day.  Finding the star wand was my big find along the riverbank and I incorporated it with the figure.  I’ll let that object add to any sense of a narrative that an observer might care to construct.  I was too cold to care about matters like that!

I left the figure near the Interpretive Center, but kept the wand.  Believe it or not, I have a collection going of found and mostly bubble wands and this adds some depth to that collection!  I should assemble that for a photograph and post it.  As I left the park, I did take one more image from the Indiana side of the Ohio River.  Past the railroad bridge, a portion of Louisville’s modest skyline can be seen.   Stay warm and dry everybody!

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For me, the toughest part of the winter is getting through all the grayness.  Spring is a month and a half away.  Thanks a lot groundhog.  Family and work  obligations coupled with the crummy weather are keeping me closer to home than usual.

When I look at my Falls images from this winter, the park has an almost exhausted feel to it.  The river spent itself washing wood and our material culture upon this shoreline.  The large object my son named “The Plug from the Bottom of the River” has been around for months…but I love the sense of theatre it presents in this landscape! What is this thing really and what is it doing here?  Before it disappears in the next flood, I should stage some Styro-spectacle on it.

The parade of found river objects will never cease.  I tell myself that I should use this time to organize all the loose ends (objects and images) that an investigation of this scope produces.  Of late, I have had a few more inquiries about presenting aspects of this project in one form or another.  It all sounds good, but I know some things are presented more as trial balloons, but that’s also a part of the creative process.  It’s about stuff bumping into each other and seeing what connections are created.  The last time I was out to the river I stopped by and photographed some earlier works from last year.  For the most part, I think they hold up fairly well considering their construction as well as many of the parts used are ephemeral.

In a world where we all live speeded up lives, it is easy to forget that we also need a chance to be fallow.  That’s what winter is best for…incubating ideas and marshalling energy.  I may have to go down into my basement and take care of business there.  The physical evidence of this project is spilling out of bags and boxes.  I think I may be able to substitute my wish to go outside with rediscovering and reorganizing what I have already found.  There’s sure to be a few gems hidden among that driftwood.  Well, I’m telling myself that…until the sun shines again!

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