Artists have helped end wars and topple governments. Can they help save the planet, too? That’s the question posed by i>ECO-ART: Artists Respond – Reclaim, Reuse, Recreate, a show opening May 8 at Hand in Hand Gallery in Flat Rock.
Featuring over 35 artists working in diverse media, the show explores the diverse ways in which local artists express their environmental values through their work.
“As artists,” says gallery owner David Voorhees, “we’re making things that people don’t necessarily need, and using energy to do it. This is a way for us to show that we’re very thoughtful about what we do and the choices we make.”
A potter himself, Voorhees uses cast-off clay from a local girls’ camp for some of his pieces, not only to save money, but also to make sure the valuable material is put to good use. Voorhees is not alone in his creative reuse of underutilized materials to make art. Asheville woodworkers Arnold Adams and Allen Davis, whose works are featured in the show, use sawmill scraps and reclaimed wood for their turned wood pieces. Fiber artist River Tanaka-Capel makes her lingerie pieces from vintage slips. Book artist Daryll Maleike uses recycled beer boxes to make functional handmade journals. Beyond recycling materials, some of the artists, such as Del Holt “recycle” old art. His collages start with nineteenth-century prints that he then paints over, using the original image to infuse the new piece with a different meaning.
But reusing or recycling materials is only part of the ECO-ART picture, says Voorhees. The show also explores how local artists are reinventing and reinvigorating the processes used to create art with the aim of making a lighter impression on the planet. For example, the EnergyXchange in Burnsville, now in its tenth year, provides artists with renewable energy to create their work. Built atop the former Yancey-Mitchell Landfill, the studio and gallery space are powered by methane gas, a naturally occurring byproduct of the decayed material from the landfill. EnergyXchange potters and glassmakers use it to fire kilns, but the gas also powers a greenhouse and provides radiant heat for the whole complex.
EnergyXchange potter in residence Lindsay Rogers, whose work is featured in the show, says that the source of fuel used to fire her kiln is anything but an afterthought. “It’s one the most important economic, aesthetic, and philosophical decisions I make. Using the free methane gas at the EnergyXchange helps me to work through the economic challenges of running a craft business and coincides with my personal desire to live my life as responsibly as I can.”
ECO-ART also features the work of John Burtner, a blacksmith who works out of the Blacksmith’s Village at the Jackson County Green Energy Park in Dillsboro. The park, which is also fired by landfill gas, was built in part due to the success of EnergyXchange. UNC Asheville is also in the process of developing its Craft Campus, which will help restore the former Buncombe County Landfill to productive, sustainable use while promoting the power of the handmade object and its connection to Western North Carolina.
Thinking about the ways that art connects artists to the Earth is another level to the show. “Few potters today dig their own clays,” says Voorhees. But several North Carolina artists do, including Judith Duff of Cedar Mountain, whose pottery is featured in ECO-ART. In 2004, Duff received a grant from the North Carolina Arts Council to research how to replicate Japanese Shino glazes with feldspars found in North Carolina. Using a chemical analysis of samples she brought back from Japan, she developed a local equivalent, which she uses for her small Japanese-style pieces. It’s innovative approaches such as this which make up the “Recreate” part of the show’s title. Donna Wahmann of Asheville uses found twigs for her hook boards while furniture maker Mark Minus incorporates natural branches into his work. For these artists, using natural and local materials goes beyond an aesthetic choice — it’s evidence of a profound connection between artist and Earth.
ECO-ART is Hand in Hand’s first collaboration with ECO (Environmental and Conservation Organization of Henderson County), an environmental organization focused on local conservation issues. The gallery will hold an art raffle on July 4, donating the proceeds to the group. Voorhees also fired a “coin bank” for the show with a penny-capacity of around $550. The contents of the bank — which will go to ECO — will help reduce waste by recycling change that otherwise might go out of circulation: pennies now cost 1.26 cents to mint and nickels, 7.7 cents each, Voorhees says.
So, can a collective of concerned artists really make a difference? Making a connection between art and the environment is a step in the right direction. “This is an effort at consciousness raising,” Voorhees says. “An increased awareness of our impact on the limited resources of our Earth redefines our daily lives. So too, it must affect our creativity.”