Some questions?

What is the answer? What was the question?

In the spirit of and with the rigor of a scientific inquiry I have explored many personal, social, and political themes. Investigation is the modis operandi of my creative process. I pose a question then use the making of the artwork to discover the answer.

During my years as a student at Pitzer College I learned that dialogue, inquiry, and critical thinking are key and throughout the many, many years thereafter- questions have given shape to my life. I am more interested in what I don’t know than in what I do.

When Gertrude Stein was being wheeled into emergency surgery her last words were spoken to her long time companion Alice B. Toklas. She asked, What is the answer? When Alice did not reply, she says, In that case…what is the question? Stein’s final words have guided my own quest.

How do you mean that?                                                              

In 1967 in the movie The Graduate  Ben (Dustin Hoffman) is a lost soul, casting about for meaning and direction. By the family swimming pool, Ben receives words of advice from Mr. McGuire (Walter Brooke), a family friend, in one of the most memorable lines from film history:

  • Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
  • Benjamin: Yes, sir.
  • Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
  • Benjamin: Yes, I am.
  • Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
  • Benjamin: Just how do you mean that, sir?

I never could have imagined that I would heed Mr. McGuire’s advice. But “plastics” have become my calling, my vocation.

In the summer of 1970 I took a life-changing class called “Environments” with Carl Hertel. The class assignment was to use the Lang Art Gallery (no relation) at Scripps College, the material was plastic. In that tumultuous time everything was being called into question and no less in this class.  “Happenings,” experiential theater, sensory explorations were exciting new ways of engaging the art audience.

Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space was the required reading. In that seminal text, Bachelard describes the psychological import of inhabited space in the metaphor of the nest, the shell, the corner, the attic.  So too in our gallery installation we wished to evoke a psychological dynamic with a feeling of restriction, expansion, discomfort and ease. Using sheets of clear, black, and white polyethylene, a heat sealer and a large box fan we filled the space with a balloon-like pneumatic structure. The entrance to the dreamlike chamber was through a softly lit space of transition. A sheet of bubble wrap that pulsed with the breath of the fan served as the door to this other world. One had to crawl on hands and knees through a maze of tubes, though areas of constriction, thorough areas of ease, and finally thorough a long dim corridor until reaching an enormous black silo punctuated with transparent plastic windows. It represented the heroes’ journey.

Carl encouraged us to think big, to think about not only making art but also making the walls, making the whole experience. Carl challenged us as artists to define the container AND the context. Plastic made it possible. It was a lightweight pliable material that with a gentle coaxing could take any shape.

Enthralled with the malleable possibilities of this amazing material, I continued to collaborate with Michael Luttrell, making inflatables as participatory events in schools and as public art in parks. Sometimes with a shape in mind- the inflatable would become a giant turtle or a snake and sometimes it operated under the rubric of “spontaneous construction.”

After graduation,  I kept in touch with Carl apprising him of my artwork adventures and exhibitions. He offered continuing encouragement as I forged my path into the art world.

Who is playing dominoes with the world?

During the 1950s to 1980s the domino theory speculated that if one state in a region came under the influence of Communism, then the surrounding countries would follow in a domino effect. The domino theory was used by successive United States administrations during the Cold War to justify the need for American intervention around the world.

What can I as an artist do?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        In the first of my public artworks, in the dark of night, I arranged these dominoes on the grassy knoll outside my dorm. As crude as these painted orange crates appear to me now- they stand as evidence that I was searching for a way to make art that was political, that spoke about the Vietnam War –  I was already asking myself, What can I as an artist do?

How do you realize your mind while birds sing?

It was in Contemplation of Being, a philosophy seminar, that I encountered the mind-bending questions of Zen Buddhism. I was intrigued by the idea of the koan as a question or as a statement the meaning of which could not be understood by rational thinking but may be accessible through intuition. After an intensive weekend reading for the class, in a flash of creative insight, I understood the structure and inner workings of the koan and made ones of my own- with words and images that became my book Happy Day You  published in 1970 by Grossman Publishers, New York.

My interest in Buddhism led me to the Mt. Baldy Zen Center for a sesshin in 1971. It was there that I was flummoxed by the koan, How do I realize my mind while birds’ sing? Almost ten years later – perhaps it was the spinning of the dryers at the laundromat that led me to the answer – my mind is singing. Twenty years after that profound epiphany when traveling in Japan, I had the good fortune of unraveling yet another mysterious koan at the raked sand garden of Ryoanji in Kyoto.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Even in Kyoto,

hearing the cuckoo’s cry,

I long for Kyoto.

As in Basho’s famous haiku, when I returned home, I longed for Kyoto. Back at home, I longed to have a meditation garden of my own. Thanks to a generous grant from the New Work Fellowship, Marin Fund for Artists and the Marin Arts Council I was able to the re-create Ryoanji in the San Francisco Civic Center Plaza. With the help of hundreds of volunteers and over 6,000 single-use plastic shopping bags Recycle Ryonaji was presented in April of 2007.

Reiko Fujii documented the installation of Recycle Ryoanji in this short film.

To chronicle the process I kept the blog: Recycle Ryoanji          

You gonna keep that?

My husband Richard and I always have a big laugh when we tell the unlikely story of our meeting. Now, some thirteen years and some two tons of plastic later when we ask each other, You gonna keep that? the resounding answer is YES!

Kehoe Beach was the site of love at almost first sight where in 1999 we had our first date and where we discovered our passion for each other and for plastic. When Richard picked up that first piece of plastic I gasped in disbelief, You gonna keep that? Then, when I picked up a piece of plastic he marveled, You gonna keep that? We each did keep that. Those first pieces became prized entries into our burgeoning collection. Since that fateful day we have joined forces to collaborate and create beachplastic.com Together we have made hundreds of artworks and have had over 50 exhibitions of our work from Singapore to the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia.

Chroma Orange 2011 is the logo piece announcing The Plastic in Question, the art exhibition I will be presenting during Pitzer’s Alumni Reunion Weekend.

In 2010 One Plastic Beach a short film was made about our project. It has played to enthusiastic audiences from Mountainfilm in Telluride to Lincoln Center in New York.

In 2010  Surfrider and Barefoot Wines produced One Beach, a twenty-five minute film about six individuals who are working to keep beaches barefoot friendly. From that longer piece they cut an eight minute, a Deep Dive short just about our Kehoe Beach project.

Q+A panel discussion with the cast of One Beach at the premier in New York.

What’s love got to do with it?

When Richard and I married somewhat late in life but fortunately, not too late, I wanted my wedding dress to express my enduring passion for him. I wanted my marriage to last forever. Plastic was the material of choice because as the saying goes, “like diamonds, plastic is forever.” I fashioned my wedding trousseau entirely from recycled materials: white shopping bags for the dress; transparent dry cleaner bags knitted for the shawl, pieces of white beach plastic on the trim of the skirt, tiny swirls of pink plastic bags for roses on the tiara.

Paper or plastic?

These days the question looms, paper or plastic? Considered as a koan, I respond, “Neither! No thanks…I brought my own reusable bag.” The bag cannot necessarily be said to be the “subject” of such encounters. A bag is a behavior. Instead of the single-use plastic bag that is often tossed away after use, we can learn for the sake of ourselves and for the sake of the environment to bring a re-useable bag when we go shopping.

We throw away 29 million tons of plastic every year in this country. It takes about 331 million barrels of oil to make all that plastic. Which works out to 10 percent of all the oil we use. That’s 10 percent of something pulled out of a hole in the ground halfway around the world, headed straight for another hole in the ground over here.

Sometimes, it feels like the problems are just too big, insurmountable, but we can begin right where we are with one small stretch of beach or just one plastic bag or in the case of my most recent project Lawn Bowls– 10,000 bags.

On February 4, 2012 the installation of Lawn Bowls was celebrated in a public event that brought together kids all of ages, the mayor and councilpersons, lawn bowlers and friends and family. For the Palo Alto Art Center On the Road program I created with the help of hundreds of volunteers  Lawn Bowls, made from yes, 10,000 single-use plastic bags. Sixteen bowls and a “jack” or target ball were arranged on the lawn adjacent to the Palo Alto Lawn Bowls Club. The balls appear as a game in progress- as if some giant players had just left the scene. The colorful balls are an example of a beautiful and playful reuse of what might otherwise be trash or maybe (hopefully) recycled.

The making of Lawn Bowls involved a big community effort. Plastic bags used for the artwork were collected from a variety of sites throughout Palo Alto. Workshops with the public, conducted in Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, provided the community with an
opportunity to help create the sculptures. Working together, participants gained pride in crafting something bigger than they could accomplish individually. And they helped to make an important statement about plastic pollution. The old adage many hands make light work came into play. On Flickr there are photographs from my workshop at the Boys and Girls Club, East Palo Alto.

The awareness of the problem with single-use plastic bags is increasing. The City of Palo Alto has been proactive- banning the bags in larger grocery stores in 2009. Efforts to educate the public about this important change continue. In a fun and eye-catching way Lawn Bowls contributes to this effort.

Where is away as in throw-away?

Most plastic packaging is called “disposable” from “disposable” food containers, “disposable” lighters, but we know that everything disposable goes some where and that some where is for a long, long time. So where is this mythical “land of away” as in throw-away?

Just how do you mean that?

For years making something out of nothing has been my motto, my byline. I am thrilled to make something from a found object from a discard, from trash. Over the years the environmental impact, the amount of this so-called nothing has grown exponentially and so too has the quantity and size of my artwork.

My work is interdisciplinary, bridging the gap between art and life. By giving aesthetic form to what is considered to be garbage, I serve as both a cleaner and curator. 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 that is beautiful and celebratory.

It is my hope that my projects will enchant and engage people so that they will consider the issues and become proactive. I want to encourage them to help with the reduce/reuse/recycle efforts and along the way make a little art of their own.

Plastic is my primary material because it’s free, it’s ubiquitous, it’s archival. As we round out the Era of Oil, plastic is the material most expressive of our times. And, like diamonds, it is forever.

Thank you!!!

I am grateful to the many individuals and organizations who have supported my work and who have given me the opportunity to speak my mind:

Applied Brilliance my presentation for the Applied Brilliance Conference 2011 in Jackson Hole, Person, Place, Planet, Plastic, What’s love got to do with it?

Green Museum a blog about Recycle Ryoanji

Women Environmental Artists Directory a webpage with images of selected environmental projects

Arts and Healing Network with my thoughts about art and voting and with my thoughts about teaching art to people with Alzheimers.

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