Archive for May, 2012

Frequent visitors to the old Riverblog may have noticed my penchant for posting images of wheels and tires that I find at the Falls of the Ohio.  Far too many automotive tires find their way into the river and many of them wash up here where they comprise omnipresent elements on the shoreline.  In addition to being more physical junk…they have also insinuated themselves into my imagination much as Styrofoam has.

When I see a wheel…I see an abstract portrait of our kind.  Through the cleverness of our minds we have invented such a simple device for first harnessing the power of nature to eventually “mastering” it.  It doesn’t surprise me to read that many experts consider the wheel to be our most important mechanical invention.  If you dispute this think beyond the ox cart and potter’s wheels…try imagining our world without gears, cogs, time pieces, jet engines, and the hard drive of your computer and more.

From what I’ve been able to find out, the wheel has been around for about five thousand years.  The oldest depictions come from Mesopotamia, but other cultures seem to have “simultaneously” invented the wheel too.  A lot depended upon domesticating draft animals to provide the power necessary to move a load.  In the New World…the ancient Olmecs knew of the wheel and used it on pull toys, but since they lacked draft animals their use of this invention was limited.  In more recent times, Industrialization and the harnessing of other energy sources has greatly and forever expanded the role that wheels play in our lives.  We have come a long way since the Neolithic.

Apart from objects, wheels also have other rich associations.  In many cultural contexts…wheels are also potent spiritual metaphors.  The Yin and Yang symbol can be thought of as a wheel.  The flag of India features a wheel which represents Dharma or the law.

The cyclical nature of things has me thinking about the changing of the seasons.  Spring is giving way to summer and it looks like our Memorial Day weekend is shaping up to be a beastly hot one.  Time is flying by.  Although I’m not a fan of auto racing, the annual tradition of the Indianapolis 500 is also set for this weekend.  I couldn’t help noticing that one of the symbols associated with this race track is a tire with wings!

When I go to the river, I bring a canvas collecting bag to store my finds.  I have more than one bag which I usually store on the front porch of my house to await later sorting.  As I have mentioned before…I have a very patient wife who with usual good humor, puts up with my obsessions!  It is this cycle of sorting through the junk that is the inspiration for this post and I had three full bags that had among other objects, toy wheels that have caught my eye.  I knew I had been picking them up of late, but hadn’t realized the collection I had formed until I laid them out.  With the exception of the odd skateboard wheel…my collection comes from toy trucks and vehicles where the heaviest load they have borne has come from the imaginations of children.  I like how they look visually and apart from that…I’m not sure what I will eventually do with them all!  Perhaps I will make some other metaphorical vehicle some day?


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I’m back at the Falls of the Ohio and I can always count on finding different conditions or something new in the air…literally.  On this trip the willow trees were sending out their white fluffy seeds from their catkins.  In the low-lying areas in the sand or against some other barrier, the fluff accumulates into drifts like delicate dry snow.  Today the air is filled with this material as the willows express themselves.  I got used to seeing ghostly spots cross my vision.  Here is an image of where the fluff comes from.

At the river’s edge, more white stuff could be found washing ashore.  Unfortunately, this material is not as environmentally friendly as the willow’s product.  In several places I encountered thousands of tiny, soft, white, beads and I instantly recognized the source.

The white object on the right is a river-turned chunk of polystyrene.  Waves pounding the Styrofoam into the teeth of water born logs and the grinding of the Styrofoam into the sand at the river’s edge “sculpts” this material for me.  These mostly biomorphic forms are so hard-won by nature…that I feel a collaborative responsibility to not alter or impose my will upon them so much.  By shaping this material into organic shapes I “feel” the environment is curiously attempting to “humanize” the polystyrene by removing its rough edges.  Besides, I don’t want to free anymore of these white beads into the world if I can help it.  Here is another place I encountered where the freed polystyrene beads have run a muck.

And now, here are a few of the Styrofoam chunks I found this day followed by an image of where I store them until I can make use of them.

In the earliest days of my project, I can recall trying to fill up bags of this stuff for “proper” disposal.  It made me feel good that I was doing something environmentally friendly in the process.  Unfortunately, there is just too much Styrofoam in the world and places that I had picked up just became littered again with the next bout of high water and flooding.  That’s when it occurred to me that I could try to use this as an art making material.  If I could make something compelling enough…others might want to try to exercise their own creativity or help me out by taking the artwork home.  To some degree, I have been successful at this, but there simply is more garbage than people who care about what happens to it. At this point (soon to be nine years later) I’ve found that my own sense of aesthetics has changed greatly.  I’m from the old school that appreciates the narrative of art as it has developed with its various cultures, museums and landmark masterpieces.  Now, I feel that if we can’t develop (and soon) a more real sense of what is life-enhancing (namely the condition of the environment)…those other traditions won’t matter much.  Of course, there are other aspects of the formal art world that irk me as well and to see Edvard Munch’s fourth version of his “Scream” painting set a new world record into the millions of dollars makes me want to scream too.  Money is also a precious resource that should be used for better purposes.  Anyway, diatribe aside, here is my latest “mess-terpiece” for your delectation.  It continues the story from a recent post .  Enter the tire swing.

My little red-capped Styrofigure investigated the tree fort created near my outdoor atelier.  He visited his much larger relative who amazingly enough was still standing although his nose had fallen off!  It doesn’t look like the people who created this fort have returned recently.  Here is a photo from the family album.

After the visit, my newest figure did a little exploration of his own.  He came across a perplexing sight that made him scratch his head.

In a tangle of white fishing line was this image of futility.  How in the world, did this ball of monofilament snag a comb?  This seems the ultimate in entanglement.

Venturing to the water’s edge, my little Styrofigure found another large section of Styrofoam that was now beached.  For me, it was all becoming too much of this stuff on this day and my figure expresses this with a gesture of its arms.  “Why do we need even more of this material…is there nothing better for the intended purpose?”

Meanwhile…back in the river, the story continues.

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Today I heard the river calling on a spectacular day at the Falls of the Ohio.  Apparently, I was not the only one who heeded this call and the park is already full of people upon my arrival.  I checked out the fossil cliffs and quickly determined that there were too many people at this location for me and I moved on.  Ducking under the trees I moved into the shade, but before I did I stopped to hear an American goldfinch that had taken up residence on a willow branch right above my head. His perch is on the borderline of  sunshine and shadow and he was singing away in his timeless goldfinch way. In appreciation I took in every note as though his song was meant for me.

Under the protection of the forest’s canopy, I came across many other spring birds including a magnificent male Pileated Woodpecker hammering away at the soft wood of a decayed log in his pursuit of wood ants and beetle larvae.  I even came across a turtle…although it’s not the type you typically find out here.  It is, however, a reminder that this bottom land where I’m walking was recently flooded.  This turtle moved into this area with the rising river.  I have a small collection of sand molds and this is my fourth different turtle design I’ve found in the park…into the collecting bag it goes.

Another unusual sight was a plastic five gallon bucket that also floated in with the high water.  Checking it out, I tried to determine whether this bucket was half full or half empty with mud and whether or not this reflected on my general outlook on life?

Eventually, my walk brought me to the creek that marks the western limit of the park’s Woodland Loop Trail.  As I moved to this spot…I was also picking up the bits and pieces that form my latest Styrofoam figure.  I posed my latest creation in a location above the creek where it meanders into the Ohio River.

I like this place because it affords a good view of the Ohio River sweeping westward.  I also enjoy checking out the mud along the creek’s banks because animals leave their tracks here.  This time I could distinguish raccoon, squirrel, heron, and dog tracks.  Because the water running through this creek is also tied to the City of Clarksville’s sewer overflow system…during peak rain storms water comes rushing through the creek.  As a result of these torrents, large boulders and stones that were buried in the mud and soil come to the forefront and help create small cascades and waterfalls.

My little man did what I also like to do which is sitting by a waterfall and losing myself in the sound of running water.  This sound and effect are so peaceful to me that I wonder if it also affects my brain’s waves?  It’s easier to clear my mind with the sound of water as a backdrop and makes me lose my sense of time.  Today, the creek offers up several terraced waterfalls and my Styroman visited them all.  Here he is by waterfall #2.

This dramatic shot depends a lot on the angle which wasn’t as acute.  Now for a couple more views.

One frequent criticism of my project which I embrace is that it is overly romantic and sentimental.  Ironically, these are also qualities I find missing in much contemporary art which seems to rely upon one’s head more than the heart.  I try to involve both feeling centers in my work.  My brand of romanticism comes from trying to evoke some sense of the sublime and respect for nature through all the garbage and habitat destruction that marks our era because this ongoing planetary degradation ultimately affects our own and other species’ chances in the game of life.  Believe it or not.

This is the last waterfall my figure visited and is marked by crisscrossing logs that were deposited here during the last good flood.  I like the composition created by all this interlocking wood.  I hung out here until the light started to  slip below the horizon and I turned for home. My mind felt relaxed and open for nearly anything.  I think this is ultimately what brings me back to the river time after time.  I can forget my daily woes, politics, and the work a day world and for a few hours transport myself to a more real and peaceful place.  I hope all of you out there in the wider world have discovered places that do the same for you.

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Previously,  I mentioned how interested I had become by the frayed barge cables I was finding tangled up with the willow trees at the Falls of the Ohio.  I really liked watching the process of change as these big synthetic ropes broke down through river power and dissolved back into nature as artificial raw materials.  I have also used these ropes to broach the subject of quantum mechanics (something I profess to really know very little about except that I like the idea of the universe being composed of nearly invisible vibrating strings ).  It’s also about all the interconnectedness of the world and the literal fibers that hold it all together. At the Falls of the Ohio, our material culture engages the natural physical materials and forces of the planet in a way that can be photographed.  Here is a portfolio of some of my favorite rope and string images.

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