Yes, that is me, Judith Selby Lang, at two years old with a Cormorant, 1952, Seaside, Oregon and in the background some 62 years later in my birthday suit, 2014, Kehoe Beach, California. Since that first introduction to the glories of sun and surf, the beach has been my place, my “power spot” on the planet. Each year on my birthday it is reaffirmed with a long trek from Abbott’s Lagoon to Kehoe Beach, Point Reyes National Seashore that includes an annual skinny dip baptism in the chill Pacific Ocean. And, although a Cormorant has never again presented herself, many other creatures large and small always do.
Although it may be surprising (or even untoward) that this photograph serves as my ur-image to depict the conjunction of place and the process of the creation of my piece for the Ostrich Feather Wedding Dress Project. Being unclothed, is the condition of “naked” receptivity that represents the state of mind that evoked my response to the request by Lorna Stevens and Jo Easton to create an artwork for their project.
To be free of constraints allowed me to see a piece of rope that washed up on the beach as a glorious what goes ’round… ready made.
From a distance the oval snarl of unraveling rope and derelict fishing gear looks like a flurry of feathers and is an inspired response to the ruff of feathers on the wedding dress. As distinctive and luxurious gift from the sea it is also a reminder of the problem of commercial overfishing, by-catch and whale entanglement. Buffeted by wind and surf, much of its beauty is the result of natural forces, plus there is mystique of its odyssey from ocean to beach.
As found art, it was doubly found — it was first found on Kehoe Beach, then in a response to the request, found again in our welter of ropes and piles of fishing nets. In my studio, to reference the ostrich feather cowl on the wedding dress, I arranged the ready-made rope into a cowl and added it to the history, origins and definitions of found art, objet trouvé, assemblage and all manner of trash into treasure — from Duchamp’s Fountain and the combines of Rauschenberg to the recent phenomena of upcycled Trashion fashion shows.
Since 1999, with my husband Richard Lang, I have been combing the plastic debris that washes up on to Kehoe Beach. By giving aesthetic form to what is considered to be garbage, we serve as both cleaners and curators. Over the years we have amassed hundreds of pounds of plastic “treasures” that we use in the creation of prints, sculptures and installations.
Wearing a piece of plastic as jewelry becomes a talking point, a statement of fashion, about what is happening on the beach and in the ocean. Crafting the debris into fine-art-wear as jewelry and garments has become an important part of my art practice.
In 2004 when we married at Burning Man, to express my enduring passion for my husband and for plastic bags, my wedding dress was fashioned entirely from recycled materials: the bodice and net skirt were sourced from the thrift shop, white single-use plastic shopping bags were gathered for the bow and the hoop of the skirt, transparent plastic dry cleaner bags were knitted for the shawl, pieces of white plastic collected from Kehoe Beach embellished the trim and tiny swirls of pink plastic bags were fashioned into roses to decorate the tiara.
While the content of my work has a message about the spoiling of the natural world by the human/industrial world, my intent is to transform the perils of pollution into something beautiful and celebratory. By putting a little fun and fashion into the conservation conversation, I hope that the value of detritus will increase. Soon everyone will be out at the beach “shopping” for a special piece of plastic trash or will be eager to “mine” the North Pacific Gyre for plastic treasures. Then, we get some great things to wear and to look at, plus we get a clean and healthy sea.
When I think about the journey of my snarl of rope — from the Pacific Ocean to Kehoe Beach to the wall at Gallery Route One — to see that “mess” presented in a formal setting — I really have to smile. When I think about the transgressive gesture of posing trash as treasure, I was delighted to see that alongside the remarkable offerings of my esteemed colleagues, it held its own.
Lorna Stevens and Joanne Easton, co-curators of Common Dilemmas, chronicle the story of their collaboration and how their personal project grew into the exhibition in Issue No.9 of the Women Eco Artists Dialog online magazine.