Archive for February, 2011

The informal trail to my plein air studio was marked by something different today.  Old tires that were cut apart to extract their metal wheels were hung upon a few select willows like perverse life preservers.  I saw few people out today and in fact a light drizzling rain probably contributed to that.  Approaching my “studio” I could see that it had been visited again.  The “Choir” group of sculptures that had been thrashed a few weeks ago were once again the targets of abuse.  All the figures that had once been standing were all broken and horizontal.

By now, I am somewhat accustomed to the destruction that happens to the works I regularly leave out here.  This time, however, there was something oddly different.  Why would anyone take the wooden plank that I like to sit on while I make these sculptures?  I checked all around the area and could not find it and so I assumed it was carried off.  My searching did uncover this scene involving a small found object sculpture that someone had previously made and left as a gift.  Here’s how it appeared this time.

Perhaps the same people who made a mess of my outdoor studio set this up.  A small doll that I had found months previously was decapitated and its head placed on this improvised “pike”.  I took a few photos and left it be.  Returning to my polystyrene cache, I decided to recycle some of the larger pieces that were now lying haphazardly on the ground and here are a few in process shots of the new sculpture I came to call “Big Red”.

Because this work was reminding me of something I had made before, I decided it needed something different to distinguish it.  While looking for my favorite plank, I also came across the unravelling rope snagged on a willow branch with its small figure I had posted a few weeks a go.  The rope was now lying in the sand…it had been pulled down from the tree.

I removed the little figure hiding among the fibers and put him in my collecting bag.  I will reassemble him once I get home and perhaps make a gift of him to somebody.  The shredded barge cable I also took along, but I had a different purpose for this…it would become a wig for Big Red.

I arranged the dishevelled rope upon the figure’s head and decided it needed a bit of styling.  Luckily, while walking the river I found the tools I needed.  First I found a brush…and I have found many of these over time.

And then, I located a blow dryer!

In no time I was able to coif my figure.  Here she is as a train passes over the railroad bridge.

I left the figure where I made her and frankly I don’t expect to see her intact again.  It wouldn’t surprise me if she didn’t last the day, but at least I have these pictures to record her existence by the riverbank.  Here is my parting image of her as she waves to the river that partially gave her “life”.

One final snapshot…I got a kick finding that little hair dryer and I do mean little!  To help judge its scale I placed a five cent piece from my pocket next to this artifact and recorded this image.

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I debated what to call or title this post and I had other ideas which included “Bowled Over” and “Kicking the Bucket”, but decided “Beyond the Pail” would work.  I chose my post’s title because as word play, it also suggested something beyond acceptable standards perhaps even implying complicity.  When you see the images perhaps they will “speak” to this?  As it goes, this is a relatively focused set of images.  They were all taken within a few hours of one another in a relatively short expanse of riverbank at the Falls of the Ohio.  I call this area the “Elephants’ Graveyard of Plastic” because it seems a lot of plastic washes up here to die and the scattered remains are hard to not notice.  This post features common containers and I’ve organized them by color.  And now, without further ado.

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What a day!  I was able to take my time and explore the western section of the park.  It had been a few months since I was last there and the change in location felt good.  As I passed the creek that defines the western most limit of the park’s Woodland Trail, I came across this nice view.  I like how the water has terraced the riverbank in particular.

The fine mud has left a record of the rising and falling water.  Plus there was something reverential to me in the pose of the fisherman.  Making himself humble in the face of this peaceful nature?  Who care’s if you catch a fish when it feels this good to be outside and breathing.

Crossing over, I soon came across a section of the riverbank that is the proverbial elephants’ graveyard for plastic.  I took many photographs of it all.  That’s stuff for a future post wahoo!  Yes, I found a lot of interesting stuff, but I also heard some birdsong as well.  In a month or so, it will be spring migration time for neotropical birds which is one of my favorite moments at the Falls.  I did come across some relics from earlier figures I made and it’s interesting to see how they weathered.  The one with the pinkish lips was last year’s butterfly guide.

How much of our history is based on fragments?  And because it is incomplete, filling in the blanks is guess-work.  Like many people around the world, our family was watching events unfold in Egypt and we were cheering for the people and their struggle for self-determination.  But our own notions of democracy were borrowed from the ancient Greeks, whose armless marble statues were once complete and probably painted as well.  American democracy is what evolved here and heaven knows it’s still a work in progress.  Whatever happens in Egypt will be their interpretation and will take in to account their civilization’s already long history.  I’m happy that the transition is happening now fairly peacefully.

Today, I found two plastic tanks on the riverbank!  Finding one would be unusual so what do you call it when you find more than one?  Just coincidence I suppose?

It’s to the Egyptian peoples’ credit that the military didn’t make this deadlier than it was.  It’s a measure of civilization on how well we take care of the least fortunate among us.  This is a quality that I find eroding in my own country where decisions are often made based on a bottom line.  Walking along, I found another little toy.  Over the years, I have found a handful of these.

Coming across this little plastic cowboy shooting his pistol made me wonder what it might be like if we were the ones experiencing a popular revolution?  With America awash in weapons, I shudder at the thought. 

I rested at this spot along my walk and ate my granola bars.  My left foot was aching a bit from walking along such uneven surfaces.  I wonder how old these trees were before the beaver got to them and what’s that yellow sandstone looking form?  Walking over to it, it’s a large hunk of some kind of expandable foam used for insulation?  There’s more than Styrofoam floating out here. 

It took some effort to roll this to a place where I could work on it.  Partially water-logged, it was really heavy on one side and that kept it from standing upright on the sloping bank of the river.  Over and over I reminded myself to be careful not to hurt my back.  Recently, I did tweak it a bit by being out of position when I lifted.  Anyway, in honor of recent events and because this block gave me the idea…here is the Ohio Valley Sphinx in several images.

I left my sphinx near the river where it could watch that other attribute of civilization wash ashore from far afield.  Good luck to the Egyptians and all the people of that region desiring a more humane life. I ended my last post by finding a plastic duck…and here is another!  What are the chances of that?  It was an old pull toy and is now missing its wheels.

Naturally, this artificial duck went into another collecting bag to join the decoy found on the last expedition to the Falls of the Ohio.

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The clock read ten minutes after four, otherwise, I wouldn’t have remembered what time it was when I began my last exploration of the river.  This is one of the world’s largest clocks and once was the pride of the Colgate toothpaste factory in Clarksville, Indiana which is just a quarter-mile at most from the entrance to the Falls of the Ohio State Park.  The company moved to Mexico and now the building is for sale.  The clock’s fate is uncertain as are all the jobs that were lost when the company relocated to another country.  The fire truck happened to be going by at the moment I took this image.

After parking my vehicle, I descended down the wooden staircase and into the driftwood field that was deposited last summer.  It has been a gray and melancholic winter.  I noticed that the river was higher now than during my last foray and my heart lifted a bit knowing that there would be fresh river booty to find!  I was correct and this post has a few of the objects and sights I came across during the hour and half I spent here.

I have observed that many people who visit here never venture far from these stairs.  They may go down to the water’s edge to take a look, skip a stone, or write their names in the shifting sands.  I came across the word “people” written in the sand and recorded the image before the advancing waves erased it. 

After so many years of walking this beach, I’m amazed at how much of the same kinds of stuff I find out here.  This was one of five basketballs I came across.  I wish I had a dollar for every one I’ve seen at the Falls.  The river was playing with this one and its waters would float it to a different location and then cast it back upon the shore before licking it back into the water again.  Here’s another ball I found.  It’s small and looks similar to a plastic representation of a ball of yarn?  I like the contrast between the ball and the willow rootlets that captured it.

I’m always finding dolls and doll parts.  On this expedition I found three dolls.  Here’s a picture of one of them as I found it.  I’m not certain if this is a Barbie doll or a knock off of one?  Doesn’t matter, what catches my eye here is the arrangement of doll and driftwood.  Because there isn’t a lot of color involved…it would be easy to overlook this while walking.

More flamboyant is this cloth and plastic artificial “plant” embedded in the sand.  Now this was easy to find because it’s winter and the eyes are starved for color.  I wonder what these plastic “nuts” are supposed to be?

Now comes the part where this post’s title originates.  For the last couple of weeks the Falls has been home to many Mallard ducks.  I was walking along the shoreline when from a distance I spotted this next to a large log.

My first reaction is why is this duck  just sitting there and not trying to get away?  Is it hurt or sick?  Did it narrowly escape the talons of one of the local Peregrine falcons?  It took me a moment before I realized that it wasn’t real!

This is the first decoy that I have come across out here and thought photographing it next to tracks left by webbed feet was appropriate.  The indigenous people of this country were the first (as far as we know) to make decoys to lure prey species closer to the hunter.  There is an aspect to some of my Styrofoam sculptures that takes a page from them.  I want people to come closer and check out what I’m doing and come away with a greater awareness of what’s happening to the environment around them.

My subconscious must be scanning this stuff as I move along, because I don’t know how I found this!  It’s a plastic slice of bread or toast and not much different in shape or color to the other forms that were around it.  Naturally, it went into the collecting bag and joins the other artificial food items I have found out here over the many years.

After hanging out at the water’s edge, I cut up the beach to my open air studio in the willows.  The so-called “Choir” grouping had been smashed to bits since my last visit.  All the figures have been beheaded, but things weren’t a total loss.  I did find this to cheer me up!

Some other creative soul left me this next to the plank I sit on when I make my Styrofoam sculptures.  This small figure looks surprised like it’s caught in mid slip.  Perhaps there was ice and one foot flew out from under it?  All the materials were on site and I’m glad that someone else took advantage of them to make something no matter how silly.  Whenever I’m out here it’s easy for me to lose track of time, but I knew it was time to go because I was cold and getting hungry.  On the walk back to my car I took this photograph.

I call it the “Staircase to Heaven” and yes it’s a wooden set of stairs that was snagged by this willow during a flood two years a go.  I once found a refrigerator stuck in the top of a tall tree and the river put it there during another bout of high water.  The river level can surprise you and with all the snow that has fallen this winter north of here.  It’s very possible we may see high water again and soon.  This weekend, (can it be true!) it’s supposed to be sunny and warmer.  I definitely will plan another trip and maybe make something of my own from all this river junk.  Until then…

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I debated with myself about going down this road in this post and decided it would be okay.  I did solicit opinions from fellow artist friends on the topic of obsessive compulsions and hoarding in an attempt to come up with a self-diagnosis.  Opinions varied.  Since photographs do a good job of describing things… I will start with images from the basement of my house and my dilemma (and subject of this post) will become clearer.

I have been doing my Falls of the Ohio project since 2003.  During this time, I have made many sculptures from the materials I found deposited in the park by the Ohio River.  Most of those materials and sculptures were left on site, but not all.  I do have a desire to remove the trash I find from this environment even if I realize I can’t get it all.  The result is that I have brought a lot of it home with the notion of using it in my art, sometime in the near future.

I “maintain” a small studio space in my basement where I store materials with the aim of making something from them.  One issue I have is that I see “potential” in so many things and I’m reluctant to give up on materials that could become art.  I am plagued by seeing all the possibilities which on occasion out strips my ability to realize all this “potential”.  Part of this is economic in nature.  I have never ever had any money and as many of you know, art materials can be very costly.  With this Falls project, I have spent the bare minimum since what I’ve been picking up is free.

These are my “rainy day” materials from which I’ve made many birthday gifts, Christmas presents, and donations for not for profit fund-raising events.  Over the years all this material culture has built up and it’s getting hard to move around my basement!  So, I ask myself…am I a hoarder?

I have to admit looking at this image…things look bad!  It’s nearly the classic picture of the hoarder house that has paths of stacked newspapers and magazines with little paths running through the spaces.  I assure you that the rest of my house is quite normal…for the most part.  We have what seems like thousands of books and I have more art hanging around than the “average” home.  The men of my family have always been drawn to collecting things (coins, medals, old photographs, etc…), but I think I came down with a more serious case than most.  I will say the books are in their cases and the art is hung on the walls with some care.  I try to take care of the objects I seriously collect, but not with the art materials and their as yet unrealized potentials.

There has never been a time that I wasn’t making something.  That sense of thrift and trying to recycle and reuse I see as being virtues of my creative process.  Years a go,  I once found employment as a picture framer and I was disturbed by all the waste in that profession.  I couldn’t see throwing away perfectly good picture frames because they were old.  And, all those scraps of 100% cotton rag matboard…are too hard-won to be thrown in the dumpster with impunity.  So, naturally much of these materials also found their way into the basement.  In my defense, I will tell you that this stuff does eventually get used.  For many years, I supplied all the neighborhood kids with all the free matboard they could draw and paint upon.  Because the matboard in particular was quality material, there are many childhood drawings and artworks that might actually survive to say something about the ephemeral experiences of being children.  Although I have vivid recollections of the art I made as a kid…nothing from my childhood survives and that does bother me a bit.  I have saved most of my sons’ childhood art.  Perhaps that’s another sign of a hoarder!

So, what am I going to do with all this “river treasure”?  I have resolved to use it this year and get it out of the basement!  I have a few upcoming exhibition opportunities and may pursue more.  To help with this goal, I have rented an additional studio space in a local church where several other artists keep spaces.  The enigmatic image I began this post with is from that church and it’s from a small library/study area used by the congregation.  Here is a partial view of my new studio room in this church with the beginnings of me moving materials out of my basement.

The church (whose name I will keep private) dates from the turn of the 20th century.  The current congregation is small and aging and I wonder how long it will remain a viable church?  To help bring in income, the vacant spaces are rented out.  I’m sharing my space with two good friends of mine both of whom are primarily painters.

Although I do think of myself as a spiritual person, I wouldn’t describe myself as being traditionally religious.  My sacrament is my creativity.  I do, however, find the idea of redemption interesting.  With my project, I am trying to redeem these poor materials I find by our river and maybe point to something that is within all of us…a univeral creativity that I feel is the hope for our planet. 

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It’s the Falls of the Ohio and it’s nearly midwinter.  The quality of the light feels like it’s coming from banks and banks of incandescent tubes in the sky.  It doesn’t even feel like light, but more like a heavy presence more  akin to fog than photons.

There are fewer people out today.  The last of the last snow lingers on in the cool places and tomorrow it will probably be gone.  I’m trudging along the river and getting muddy.  I use the stick I brought along to test its sticky depth and tap the thickness of what ice I encounter.

Close to shore dozens of mallard ducks are dabbling in the muck.  I wonder what they are finding to eat?  Whatever it is it seems to be worth the energy expense to go after it.  The normally iridescent colors on the drakes are now subdued and await the splendor of the sunlight to reveal their gaudiness.  Watching the ducks I slip and slide in the less secure places along the riverbank.  My wife is not going to like seeing these shoes!  Once in a while, I find a good spot to rest and scrape mud off the bottoms with the edges of a stick.

I walk by familiar spots along the way to my open air studio.  I like checking out the uprooted trees and appreciate their exposed root masses like the fine subterranean sculpture they seem to me.  Seeing a tree like this is an odd sensation because you know the roots that supported and nourished this tree claimed a space in the earth that was hidden from view.  I often think of these conceptualized spaces.  There is a complete lack of greenery that lays the structural aspects of the park open for inspection.  Sometimes the driftwood feels like the bones of the river.

The sculpture group I’ve come to call the “The Choir” is still standing.  I’ve enjoyed seeing what happens to these guys.  Visitors are still playing with them and I notice small changes here and there.  As the eyes, ears, noses, and mouths fall off, the character of each personage changes.  The starkness and artificiality of my material choices contrasts with all the wood that surrounds them.  When I work in my spot, “The Choir” watches my back.  I like this recent photo of my studio spot.

The wood tells its own story.  All the sticks that wiggle, twist, and reveal character are grouped together and await their potential to be realized in just the right sculpture.  This site looks like it could be ancient.  I remember photos seen in a book about Andeevo in Russia where entire winter structures were made from the remains of mammoth skeletons covered in prepared hides.  That was life 15,000 years a go.  I can picture my site covered by a tarp and maybe I’ll try that this year if the river allows it and the opportunity presents itself.

Meet “Skippy” who is named after the glass I used for one of his ears which came from the bottom of a peanut butter jar.  I found it in the sand. The raised letters told me the brand name.  “Skippy” is also made from Styrofoam found along the way, plastic fishing bobbers, rubber, a plastic mouth guard, and various woods.  The “Choir” is visible behind the studio site.

I don’t have a good story to go along with this figure.  I did kind of imagine that Skippy was checking out the river line and looking for fresh and unusual flotsam and jetsam.

Cold, wet, and muddy Skippy entertains himself by looking for colorful or unusual artifacts such as these found on this trip.  The joy in finding is its own reward.

So many lost toys almost all of the time.  Each time I come out here I find some plastic representation of life.  I usually take a picture of the object as found and then it goes into my collecting bag.  I like that relationship between images and objects…although the years worth of objects is starting to take up serious space.

This is where I last saw Skippy.  He was standing by the snow with a willow tree framing the view behind his head.  The bright blue of a plastic drum adding a note of wondrous color in an otherwise drab riverscape.  We have a way to go before Spring and everyone I know is already sick of winter.  I’m going to try to stay positive and look for the beauty in the common place.  I wonder what the groundhog’s shadow will say?

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