Plastic shopping bags can easily end up becoming big, nasty problems, like the islands of bags floating in the oceans.
In Olympia, though, hundreds of the ubiquitous bags have found another fate: They’ve been turned into a big and not-so-nasty dragon.
The dragon, on exhibit at The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, is the work of Olympia artists Bil Fleming and Christine Malek, both known for their work with recycled materials.
The sculpture, suspended by plastic-bag ropes and a bit of wire in the center’s multistory lobby space, is about 45 feet long and includes an estimated 400 bags, plus bubble wrap, other repurposed plastic and a bamboo frame.
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It is the centerpiece of an exhibit of recycled art curated by Jo Gallaugher of the Olympia art gallery Matter.
This is the Chinese year of the dragon — and the dragon looks pretty friendly — but the piece, called “Polyethylene Fiend,” is also meant to represent the scope of the problem with the bags, an estimated 1 trillion of which are used per year.
“The vastness of the actual creature goes with the vastness of the problem,” Malek said.
“I have these associations with dragons as being these evil hoarders of wealth,” Fleming said. “They have their treasure that they guard very jealously. They are monstrous.”
Much of the work on the piece was done on site in the four days before the show opened last week, with the artists staying up until well past midnight and using mobile scaffolding to install the piece.
“We played to our strengths,” Malek said. “I do a lot of figurative work, and Bil does a lot of sculptural and structural work.”
Fleming, who works with found materials and reassembles them into everything from lamps and picture frames to large-scale installations with moving parts, worked on the body of the dragon.
He got help from other artists, friends and his children to sew together bags, creating a fabric in which to wrap a bamboo frame. (Even the bamboo was found material, harvested from his yard after it was damaged by the snow and ice storms.)
“I’m always attracted by materials that are free and easy to come by and that are typically thought of as waste,” he said. “It’s a challenge to turn things that people regard as worthless into something that has meaning and worth.”
Malek, who creates soft sculpture animals from old sweaters, created the beast’s head, hands and feet.
The head, the heaviest part of the sculpture, was formed around two boxes and stuffed with plastic. “I used every plastic bag I could find in the house to finish that head,” she said.
The artists knew one another only slightly when Gallaugher suggested they work together because both had proposed large-scale sculptures for the exhibit. They combined their original ideas, Fleming’s to create an abstract form from plastic bags and Malek’s to create a large fabric dragon.
For both, the collaboration was an exercise in patience and compromise — from differences in opinions on materials to different aesthetics.
“I have a bad case of the cutes,” Malek admitted. “He hardened me a little more, and I tried to soften him.”
Did she succeed? Perhaps.
“I saw a quote the other day that art, if it’s going to be truthful, needs to talk about decay and about negative things,” Fleming said. “Not that art has to be truthful, but those things are a reality in our world.
“At the same time, I like to think that through creating something like this dragon, which is whimsical and kind of silly, we can show that there are redeeming things we can do.
“We can use salvaged things and things that are waste to bring attention to issues and at the same time also have fun with them.”