Have you ever looked at a beer bottle and thought, That would make a good candle? Like many people switching to a more environmentally friendly – “green” – lifestyle, artists are finding new ways to show their creativity while repurposing material that otherwise would be tossed in the garbage.
Tom Brown has found an outlet for his creativity by participating in the Iowa City Public Library’s Altered Book Sale and Exhibit.
For the past few years, people of all ages have been encouraged to participate in creating fun works of art using old books as the focal material of the work. Those who participate have the option of using their own library for material or picking up an old book from the Iowa City Public Library (ICPL).
Using recycled material such as books and copper, Brown went to work creating his piece for the exhibit: a lamp. Brown made the body from copper tubing and the shade from the pages of a medical encyclopedia.
“It was covered in skulls and kidneys and other body parts,” says Brown. He goes on to explain how he made sure he didn’t make the lampshade too thick. He wanted the words and images to create shadows on the surrounding walls.
Brown is not only a participant in the event; he also works at the ICPL. “People seem to enjoy the Altered Books event. Every year it seems like we talk about it being our last and then, come summer, people want to do it again,” Brown says.
Unfortunately, this year, it seems the event will not be continued. However, the local community libraries are contriving a new project to promote Iowa City’s literary culture and create interest in reading and writing.
Amy Leners is another who has enjoyed working with different “found” material.
“I think it was last spring,” recalls Leners, when she began searching for new and different ways to create art. “I went out on one of the trash days where anything and everything would be picked up. I noticed a lot of different sizes of bike tires, so I grabbed them.” After about a month, Leners decided what to create with her tires: a chandelier.
Leners first removed the rubber tires from the wheel frames. She used two tires: one a little over two feet in diameter and the other about one foot. Then, she says, she added some old beads she’d had for a long time to the spokes of the wheel. She stuck with darker colors for the beads, like crimson, violet, and navy.
Leners tied the two wheels together using old, white Christmas lights. Her final decoration is truly fitting for a college town: beer bottles.
“I used Rolling Rock bottles, because the light shines really nicely through the green bottles,” says Leners, who also admits it is a favorite drink among many of her friends.
Her current project is actually reworking her beer-bottle chandelier. Again, she is using bottles as her main material. “They’re just about the easiest thing to find in a college town,” she says. However, this time Leners is dropping the tire wheels for Styrofoam, an old magazine and IV tubing. Even though she bought the Styrofoam, Leners says she is preventing it from just being tossed out and sitting in a landfill forever.
Much like Leners, artist Isabel Barbuzza gets a lot of her material from people she knows.
“Sometimes my students will just bring me different materials like books and plastic – things that were going to be thrown out if no one would claim them,” she says. “Other times I may get a call from different departments or libraries that are getting rid of books because everything is digital now.”
Barbuzza is an associate professor of art at the University of Iowa. Her work has been featured nationally and internationally: from California to New York, and from South America – where she is from — to Russia. Her artwork has ranged in price from $500 to $20,000.
“I just love working with books,” Barbuzza says. Recently, she completed a collage titled “Ekstassee” – pronounced ecstasy – using the dust jackets from art books. The various University of Iowa libraries collected the jackets for her.
Barbuzza’s collage is approximately eight to nine feet tall and two to four feet wide. The piece incorporates hundreds of different pictures that range from images of God to Batman on a motorcycle.
“The piece is all about seeing,” says Barbuzza. She adds that it also deals with perception and the subjectivity of reality: what is right and what is wrong.
At the top of the collage is a picture of a woman’s face. Barbuzza says that the woman in the image is blind, yet she is covering one eye like one would do when they may not want to see something.
“The picture was really what inspired me to create this piece,” Barbuzza said.
Another work of Barbuzza’s that incorporated recycled material is a work titled, “Embrace Me.” It is a suit created from mussel shells and Vaseline.
“I had mussel parties and invited friends over to help me eat all these mussels I needed for the suit.”
Barbuzza says the piece is quite heavy: 60 lbs. She added that she made sure to try it on at least once before she began showing it.
Whether creating art as a hobby or a calling, getting material doesn’t have to be an expensive process. An artist can create beauty from trash as easily as from new materials. Ultimately, it’s just about getting your concepts across to another person.
Barbuzza says, “I respond to materials, and I use whatever material is interesting to me to get my ideas across.”
The next time you’re about to throw out a milk carton, or other objects, stop and think about what you might create with it instead.
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Ripley is a name long associated with uniqueness and — let’s be honest — oddity. The latest book in the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! series is no exception. Flip to any page in this attractive, hard cover book, and you’ll find bizarre stories about all sorts of topics that will keep you reading and turning page after page:
- training pigeons to evaluate art by rewarding them with food, page 77
- a Russian man with a tree growing inside his lungs, page 111
- hair scissors that fit on the tips of a stylist’s fingers, similar to Edward Scissorhands, page 144
- and so much more.
The idea of reusing discarded items in new ways is hardly unique these days, and you might wonder how reuse and repurposing would fit Ripley’s definition of “odd.” Yet several of the entries in this book show highly unusual ways to reuse discarded items.
One of my favorites as far as ingenuity goes is the “trashy lingerie” created by artist Ingrid Goldbloom Bloch (Massachusetts). The bustier and panties are woven from a “fabric” of thin strips of “cola cans carefully threaded through a wire frame” (page 206). Though the press release I received says these skivvies are comfy, I have to wonder. Come on, would you want to wear metal underwear?
Have you ever wondered what to do with all those egg cartons after the eggs have been eaten? Check out the art of Enno de Kroon (Netherlands), who paints portraits, still lifes, and other works onto the surfaces of the cardboard cartons (page 210). De Kroon is quoted in the book as saying, “I consider egg cartons as two-and-a-half dimensional objects that offer remarkable possibilities.” Remarkable, indeed. But don’t expect a traditional painting; these one-of-a-kind pieces appear “distorted when viewed head on.”
When you were a kid (or your kids were kids) were Transformers a popular toy in your household? How would you like to have an 8-ft. tall sculpture made from auto parts, scrap airplane parts, and used motorbikes (page 244)? This lifelike (if you can say that about a hunk of metal) sculpture in the photo on the right is the creation of RoboSteel, an Irish company that makes replicas of cultural icons and characters from fantasy.
RoboSteel also is responsible for a suspiciously Vaderesque space soldier (page 245) that is about as creepy a villain as you might find in any film. Nightmares, anyone?
A more playful sculpture (page 196) is a 6 ft. 6 in. tall angel made entirely of used toys. Robert Bradford (England) assembled “Toy Angel” over two months, using thousands of plastic playthings, such as action figures, water pistols, a toy saxophone, race car tracks, and even a tiara (but on the statue’s knee, not its head).
Ian Davie (North Wales) paints tiny birds on swan feathers he collects near his home (page 206). Davie hand cleans and grooms the feathers until they are perfectly smooth and ready for his artwork. Then he coats the feathers with acrylic to make a stable “canvas.” He needs about a week to create each painting, but the reward is apparently worth the effort; he sells the tiny works of art for $900 each.
Art seems to be the running theme with the reused/repurposed items in this book. Alex Queral (Pennsylvania) sculpts portraits from a most unusual medium. The heads he sculpts virtually pop from the pages of recycled phone books (page 207).
Do these spiders scare you? They might if they could actually move. Those elegant eight legged critters are beautiful and sharp; they’re made from scissors collected by artist Christopher Locke (page 14). Don’t they make a black widow look almost benign?
Most people who play the lottery lose, of course. Have you ever thought about the environmental impact of all those losing lottery tickets? Two artists from Brooklyn (New York) created a full-sized Hummer H3 replica using $39,000 worth of losing lottery tickets (page 134). And that’s only 39,000 losing tickets. It boggles the mind to imagine how big a fleet of Hummers they could create if they used the losing tickets in just one state – let alone the entire country.
If stories and photos like these intrigue you, you’ll enjoy reading Ripley’s Believe It or Not! ENTER IF YOU DARE! You can purchase the book on in all major bookstores, on Amazon and other online bookstores, or at any Ripley’s Odditorium.
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Going to Kansas City? If you’ll be there anytime this month, be sure to check out WaterPartners’ art show and sale at the Crosstown Station (1522 McGee Street), Kansas City, MO. The show began March 4, and will be on display throughout the month. Artwork will be on sale Thursday, March 12, from 6 – 10 p.m.
WaterPartners is an international nonprofit organization that envisions “the day when everyone in the world can take a safe drink of water.” Through “innovative financing,” WaterPartners helps communities in developing nations gain access to clean water for drinking and install proper sanitation methods. Sixteen artists from Springfield, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Oklahoma City have pooled their talents to raise funds for WaterPartners’ projects.
Thursday’s WaterPartners’ World Water Day event will include music by the Barclay Martin Ensemble and Oriole Post. The suggested donation is $10 per person. During the sale, food and drink will also be available for purchase. To reserve a ticket, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The following book review is part of a series writer Jordan Jones calls the “Environmental Canon,” books that have shaped the environmental movement. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
Photographer and naturalist Ansel Adams (1902-1984) is surely one of the most accomplished and ubiquitous artists in American history, his career a rare intersection between extraordinary popular success and widespread critical acclaim. Though now decades old, his striking black-and-white photographs still maintain a large cultural presence through museums, books, magazines, calendars, coffee mugs, posters, and clothing. Almost every American has had some contact with Adams’ work, if only in passing.
Despite this familiarity (or perhaps even because of it), I found my understanding of the man and his work to be incorrect, simplistic even. Adams was primarily a photographer of the natural world, and his most famous compositions are monumental landscapes, shot in stark black and white (Adams rarely worked in color). To the casual viewer like myself, these works appear to express the hugeness, the permanence, of nature — everlasting beauty. As I would come to learn, though, he sought not to depict the eternal, but the ephemeral.
Adams was born in San Francisco at the turn of the twentieth century. Though he lived an urban existence and was the offspring of upper-class parents, he quickly developed a love of nature. He possessed an energetic, irrepressible personality well-suited to the rigors of the outdoors. Struck by the beauty of the West’s relatively unspoiled wilderness, he would devote his life to its preservation and be inspired to document it through photography.
As he aged, Adams deftly combined the roles of environmentalist and artist. He joined the Sierra Club at 17 and was deeply involved with the organization for the rest of his life, even serving as its director for a time. Though he wielded great influence through the group, Adams’ photography was arguably a more effective, and universal, means of communicating environmental concerns. His stunning photographs of the great Western wilderness — many taken before the bulk of industrialization occurred — are as eloquent and direct as any written argument. Indeed, if one’s aim is to depict ineffable beauty, words are unnecessary.
During the catastrophic years of the 1930s and 40s, Adams would be criticized for choosing to focus on the natural world rather than on contemporary social and political problems (the Great Depression, World War II, etc.); but, ultimately, history would vindicate him. As the natural world became more polluted and despoiled, Adams felt a pressing need to remind both the citizenry and the politicians of the worth and vitality of nature. In a sense, he was ahead of the curve. Decades before the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring — which electrified the public and the environmental movement — Adams had already been hard at work on these issues.
Examining his photographs, I came to realize that, as an artist, Adams was not interested in simply depicting the natural world, but in depicting the natural world and its relationship to light. He explored this relationship with his so-called “zone system” technique, which enabled him to measure and manipulate tones of light. He was also concerned with expressing the way a particular scene made an observer feel. His work then, as critic John Szarkoski observed, does not seek to present only the basic appearance of a scene — its “external event” — but also to convey the emotional content of a scene — its “internal event.”
A fine example of this is Adams’ breakthrough 1927 piece, Monolith, the face of Half Dome. In it, a massive slab of stone juts into a black sky, as grim and beautiful as an ancient fortress. Adams intentionally darkened the sky, in order to demonstrate the scene’s power and majesty, or at least the power and majesty he perceived. As he said of the photograph in his autobiography, “I had been able to realize a desired image: not the way the subject appeared in reality but how it felt to me and how it must appear in the finished print.” He would more fully articulate this artistic philosophy with his technique of “visualization,” which, as one might guess, involved visualizing the desired result and feeling of a photograph before creating it.
The ephemeral aspect of nature is the primary concern of Adams’ work, as demonstrated by his fascination with nature’s most transitory element — light. In one of Adams’ most famous photographs, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, the tombstones of a village cemetery reflect the last light of a dying sun. In the background, a mysterious moon rises into the sky, already beginning to imbue the scene with its own eerie glow. The photograph is a beautiful meditation on the ephemeral nature of all things, including nature itself. A similar effect is achieved in Sunrise, Mount Tom, in which a black, gnarled stump dominates a barren foreground against a backdrop of shining, snow-covered mountains.
Adams’ work is really about the briefest of interactions between light and matter; it is about moments. And though these moments may occur in the seemingly eternal, natural world — on the surface of a lake older than humanity or on the jagged tops of primeval cliffs — they are moments, nonetheless. If nature is a “Divine performance,” as Adams said, then it is as fluid and fleeting as any play or recital.
Once one begins to view Adams’ photographs with these concerns in mind, they take on a completely different character. A pretty flower becomes a symbol of fragility. Distant mountains dwarfed by clouds and sky remind us of our own smallness. As I learned, “prettiness” or “bigness” are not Adams’ first priorities. They are, rather, byproducts of his pursuit of natural epiphanies. And epiphanies are not permanent.
This concern with impermanence and fragility highlights one of the major ironies of Adams’ career. His photographs and work with the Sierra Club were a driving force behind the creation, promotion, and maintenance of national parks, most notably Sequoia and Kings Canyon. But the popularity of his work — which celebrated the tremendous beauty of nature — also led to increased tourism to the same wildernesses he had worked so hard to protect. In his later years, he would become embittered by the National Parks Service’s philosophy of “resortism,” which, in its drive to allow the public greater accessibility to its national treasures, cheapened and despoiled many of them through the building of roads, hotels, and the like.
The vitality and wonder he labored so hard to depict were in danger of being lost — sold and commodified like something off a conveyor belt. He once wrote, “Wilderness is not only a condition of nature, but a state of mind and mood and heart. It cannot be confined to the museum-case, seen only as a passing diorama from superlative throughways.” It would prove extremely difficult to instill in the public (and the federal government) the deep reverence and understanding of nature that Adams desired them to have.
His work and life, then, have taken on an even greater significance since his passing. As Ansel Adams himself once said, “The response to natural beauty is one of the foundations of the environmental movement.” If this is true, then he is arguably one of the movement’s most articulate and influential figures. At the same time, his work is a chronicle of what has been diminished, or even lost. In addition to environmentalist and artist, Adams unfortunately took on a third role as well: historian.
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Jordan Jones’ Environmental Canon
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Call for Student Art Work: PICTURING A BETTER WORLD
To submit art work to the Blue Planet Green Living Student Art Gallery, please print this form, complete it, and mail it to:
Picturing a Better World
Blue Planet Green Living
312 Ronalds Street
Iowa City, IA 52245
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I understand that all submissions become the property of Blue Planet Green Living and will not be returned. (Note: Selected student work will be displayed at future shows. Sign up to receive announcements on Blue Planet Green Living.)
Student (print name): _________________________________________________________
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Teacher’s Name or Classroom _________________________________________________
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Description of My Artwork (100 words or less):_______________________________________
Size: 8 1/2″ x 11″ paper
Media: water colors, acrylics, chalk, charcoal, pen, pencil, crayon, or felt tip marker
Subject: Picturing a Better World
Description: Provide a title and/or up to a 100-word description of the work
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Dublin artist Pauline Rowan wasn’t satisfied with the art materials she and her students were using in their work. Most were filled with petrochemicals and were harmful to the artists and damaging to the environment. Rowan is a prolific photographer and videographer, a filmmaker, a painter, an illustrator and an art instructor. She is also an ecopreneur and the founder of Earth & Rowan.
It would have been easier for Rowan to disappear into the world of art, never stepping outside the roles of artist and teacher. But Rowan took action to solve a problem that has troubled other artists for decades. She shared her story with me in an interview by email from her studio in Dublin. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
BPGL:How did you, as a young artist, approach art materials manufacturers with your idea?
ROWAN: I told them I was looking for these exact products and that I believed they should be more widely available. I was lucky that some of my many emails and phone calls to various people and groups were eventually fruitful. Some of those early dead ends may yet turn out to be productive also.
When I found what I had been looking for, I wanted to share it, because I knew through talking to people and stores that I had not been the only person looking for these products. There is great potential for growth in this company.
BPGL: Do you get involved with any of the experimentation of your products?
ROWAN: As this whole adventure is in its early stages, there is constant feedback between myself and the makers of the various products, such as how we could improve or change some products slightly for specific markets, for example, products suitable for children.
When I was over in Italy earlier in the year visiting the makers of our liquid watercolours, we spent time experimenting with various mixtures of pigments, mediums and binders for a new Hemp Oil Paint, which I hope will be ready soon.
BPGL: Do your suppliers package their products with your label, or have they substantially designed a product line just for you? How much are you involved in the business?
ROWAN: I usually commission products to my criteria. The products themselves can change in the early stages, such as changes in consistency or changes to colour ranges. It is a group activity I guess. Initially, commissioned products would have come to me without any labeling or maybe basic handmade labels. I then designed and printed new labels, attaching them myself — which is a lot of work! I felt it important that all products would be labeled under one name, Earth & Rowan, yet also crediting the individual makers.
Now, most of the products come with these Earth & Rowan labels on them as this saves on waste and time. Other products come with codes for labeling. Some products come in as big rocks! I have to hammer the Grey Slate into smaller pieces for packaging into drawing material selection boxes (a nice Christmas or birthday present, by the way).
This is how things work at present and I am sure this will continue to be streamlined as the business develops. Presently I am running Earth & Rowan on my own. I am secretary, delivery person, salesperson, buyer, designer, packer, photographer etc. It seems like a lot of work but I keep lists and am economical with time.
BPGL: Your Egg-Oil Emulsion reportedly smells great. Tell us more about the aroma.
ROWAN: The Egg-Oil Emulsion/Tempera Grasse smells like lemon cheesecake. (Others have noted a hint of vinegar, which is used as preservative.) It can make me hungry when I am working with it! And if I am using a palette knife, as well, it can really add to the feeling of icing a cake. But please do not to eat it. It is not food.
BPGL: As a charcoal portrait artist for 15 years, I used just about every coal and ash product on the planet. What will I like about your Willow Charcoal? What special qualities does it have?
ROWAN: The charcoal I currently stock is from a producer in Yorkshire, England. I do hope to get a small producer here on the island of Ireland also to keep it local.
Our charcoal is deep black and clings to the paper well when used. Sometimes with other charcoals, the charcoal falls away from the page and only leaves a dull brown scrape on the paper. Our charcoal is almost like a compressed charcoal and comes not only in willow sticks but also in chunks. We stock a wide, growing, variety of raw drawing materials including Sanguine Chalk, Graphite, Grey Slate, Sienna and Green Earth.
BPGL: Please don’t take this next question wrong, but I have to ask it. I’ve spoken with a few artist friends who are vegan. When they visited your website, they had concerns about the use of the ink sacs of the cuttlefish, the harvesting of the cochineal insect, and the use of milk and eggs. These are all things that are going to distract animal rights groups from your attempts to free art supplies from the evils of petroleum and polymers. How do you answer these critics?
ROWAN: My first concern has been the environment, and I have endeavored to bring environmentally friendly art materials to the public, products that have been made without the use of petrochemicals and also using natural pigments all sourced locally in Europe. These are the rules that I made my business to. They are very tight rules. In following this route I have returned to many of the traditional methods of preparing and making paints and inks. In order, therefore, to not use synthetic mediums and solvents, we have used milk and eggs. Vegans and animal rights groups can avoid Sepia & Carmine and hang in there — we will have our Hemp Oil paint ready soon!
BPGL: What is next? Any new art supply products in mind?
ROWAN: I just got in some beautiful large watercolour disks that come packaged in cardboard. On the cards Earth & Rowan also has lined up Children’s & School Paints and Hemp Oil Paint! I am always looking for individual small-scale producers of natural art products, dye makers, papermakers etc. I would like to support as many as I can. If their products are creativity related — I’m interested.
BPGL: Typically, green products cost a little more. Are you finding that artists are receptive to eco-friendly art supplies?
ROWAN: Green products usually do cost a little more and the cost reflects the products’ quality and the time and care put into producing them. I have found that artists are receptive to eco-friendly art supplies and some find them a more authentic material to work with. A lot of artists can be creatures of habit and do find it difficult to try new materials. As consumers, we all get used to expecting certain products in certain containers and packaging. When something new comes along, it can take a little while for the public to accept it.
Take for example the plastic bag levy here in Ireland. Ten years ago, all shopping was brought home from the store in a plastic bag, the bag was then thrown away. Thousands of plastic bags littered the hedgerows of Ireland. The idea of reusing or using a canvas shopping bag simply wasn’t heard of. Now asking for a plastic bag in a store is considered irresponsible and a waste of money.
(The plastic bag levy is a charge of 22c that is paid to the government towards the environment on every plastic bag used in stores. The customer, at the cash til, pays the charge. The result was that people didn’t want to pay it and so brought their own reusable or canvas bags. It started the whole “this is not a shopping bag” bag.)
BPGL: How strong is the green movement in Ireland? Are people environmentally aware and trying to make changes, as you are doing?
ROWAN: In general, I believe people are environmentally aware here. The government has twinned together saving money with saving the environment. There’s a great effort to teach environmentalism in the schools.
Car road tax is based on the car’s emissions. Houses for sale are graded by their Energy Efficiency. Every home has a Green Bin, a Black Bin and some have a Brown Bin — for compost materials all collected from the door. Ireland is intending to cease the sale of traditional light bulbs — only long-life environmentally friendly ones would be allowed. The Green Party has a major role to play in our government — they share the running of the country. There is a lot more that can be done. I would like to see cycle lanes taken off the road and put in a safer position on the pavement. Cycling in the city at the moment can only be described as terrifying.
BPGL: I see that you are a video artist and a photographer, and that you teach drawing, but I could not find any of your paintings online. Could you tell us where to find a photo of a Pauline Rowan painting with Earth and Rowan paint?
ROWAN: As an artist I would use various media from photography to painting and in-between. I recently showed ink drawing and watercolours at two different exhibitions in Dublin. I also exhibited photographs from Showroom Series at a 2004 exhibition in Dublin.
BPGL: Having your own line of “natural art supplies” has obviously gained you some attention, and soon you will become a huge corporate magnate swimming in money. Will this eventually distract you from your art? What are your goals?
ROWAN: I do not believe that Earth & Rowan will distract me from being an artist. If anything it has benefited my art practice. I really would see that the attention gained by starting Earth & Rowan will go back into building it as a business for the small producers involved and myself. And also highlighting that there are eco-friendly alternatives out there and we can all do something to help.
I would hope that one day Earth & Rowan could open a small premise in which there would not only be a shop selling Earth & Rowan products but with a space for learning about art materials and a gallery space.
BPGL: How does the future look for Earth & Rowan “natural” art supplies?
ROWAN: The more my company develops, the more faith these smaller producers will have that people really do, indeed want their products. Then they will start making larger batches of the products they use in their own art practices. That will subsidize their income and help spread the word that there is an alternative out there. I see Earth and Rowan as a means to help small producers connect with a market that would not have found them.
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