Gallery puts emphasis on works made from recycled, reclaimed and sustainable materials How green is your art? It's a big question these days, especially for South Sound artists and collectors.
Artists love that they can make less waste, collectors love the edginess and small carbon footprint, and the average art-viewer loves the gee-whiz cleverness. And with Matter recycled-art gallery in Olympia enlisting its 100th artist, it seems “green” art is getting more cred.
“When I planned the gallery, I wanted a certain kind of art,” says Jo Gallaugher, who opened Matter in October. “I wanted texture: rootsy, edgy pieces, nothing shiny. As I talked with artists in the area, that’s when I decided that Matter would show repurposed art. I find it more interesting.”
As you walk into Matter in downtown Olympia, you instantly get what Gallaugher’s talking about. The wide space is filled to the brim with two- and three-dimensional art, yet manages to avoid clutter, partly by grouping works by the same artist and partly because of a unifying funky vibe.
There’s large sculpture, like the 7-foot-tall female form by Brian Mock made of welded wing nuts, soaring in abstract curves like a textured Giacometti. There’s Diane Kurzyna’s plastic-bag baby dolls and Ben Duncan’s giant flowers with curled-up LP records for petals. There’s wearable jewelry, tables made of car parts, wallets made of cowboy boots. On the ochre walls, there are collages, wood-strip flags, and vintage bike taillights turned nightlight.
Gallaugher, an Olympia native who moved back to the area from a high-powered SoCal CEO life to reconnect with family, had been collecting art herself for years – and a lot of it was from recycled materials. She’s not alone in liking the look that goes with repurposed art.
“Walking into Matter is an amazing sensual and visual experience,” enthuses Jeff Parsons, a Leavenworth-based collector who began adding green art to his collection a few years ago. “It’s the only gallery I’ve ever seen quite like it.”
Parsons, who runs a nature retreat center for schools, appreciates recycled art for the social impact. “I enjoy it whenever someone re-purposes something that would have gone to landfill, especially when it’s beautiful,” he says.
Sally Penley is another of Matter’s patrons and a fan of local artist Greg Bartol, who sculpts with scrap metal and car parts.
“It makes one feel good that art this fine can be made out of reclaimed materials,” says the Olympia collector. “But it’s got to be a great piece of art first and foremost. It’s amazing how good the work is in Matter.”
With art, quality is always an issue. There’s a lot of bad art out there in any medium, of course, but green art can fall into the grade-school-project category more than most. It’s notable that while various organizations hold recycled-art shows – such as Tacoma’s Envirohouse, Ballard’s ReStore and various Portland venues – repurposed art is almost never heralded as such in museums, instead standing on its own as part of a broader movement. Well-known examples include the Gees Bend quilts, shown several years ago at Tacoma Art Museum; the tin-can flags by Seattle artist Ross Palmer Beecher in the Seattle Art Museum collection; and found-object jewelry by Nancy Worden, recently at Tacoma Art Museum.
Part of the problem may be the kind of art it is.
“We tend to make functional things,” points out Bil Fleming, a Matter artist who sculpts and frames photos with salvaged wood. “People in art circles consider that craft, not art. There’s not a lot of green art in museums.”
“There’s a whole range of this kind of art,” explains TAM chief curator Rock Hushka. “Folks like Robert Rauschenberg are deadly serious, but some are more whimsical. Found-object art has been around a long time. But the key (to quality art) is that the artist doesn’t try to negate the symbolism inherent in the object, but uses it to reinforce their vision. They have to transform it.”
Tacoma artist Jennevieve Schlemmer agrees that there’s a lot of work required to make art good as well as green. Schlemmer is known best for her large public-art mosaics, but she recently began making smaller sculptures from wire and cut-up tin cans, some of which are now on view at Tacoma’s Madera gallery. She’s thinking of applying to show her work at Matter.
“It’s the same with mosaics – everybody and their mother thinks they can make them,” says Schlemmer. “But to make good art you need fine details, looking at the whole picture, durable materials. I spend a lot of time on design and preparation: handcutting tin, sanding edges.”
One big reason why Schlemmer, and many other artists, have turned to repurposed art is to reduce their carbon footprint. The ceramics industry, she explains, is very environmentally invasive with quarrying, shipping and waste. Sculptors in other media have similar issues – Tacoma’s Justin Hahn began making polymer pieces in response to the waste he saw in his bronze-sculpting day-job, and Olympia’s Greg Bartol hated to see all the car parts thrown out at Green River Community College, where he taught welding. Traditional photography and painting use many noxious chemicals. New art materials can also be expensive.
“I’m a really environmental person, and mosaics weren’t lining up with that,” says Schlemmer.
She’s not alone – Gallaugher has signed up 100 artists now in her gallery, and points to a number of them who expanded beyond traditional materials after hearing about Matter.
But just as collectors want good art first, artists make repurposed art mostly because of the fun and freedom it gives them.
“When I make jewelry, gold and silver are really expensive, so I’m not apt to take risks,” says Schlemmer. “With steel and tin, I can have fun with it, and I’m really happy with the results. I love the color and movement.”
“Recycled materials bring freedom,” agrees Fleming. “What I like about found objects is their patina, like wood or metal. And there’s an element of anthropology to it – objects can comment on our culture.”
Finally, the average art viewer seems to like repurposed art. Matter has been growing as a business, says Gallaugher, selling work both live and online to local and national collectors. Gallaugher gets 15 artist submissions every week, and the gallery has 1,000 Facebook fans.
While Schlemmer suggests that people like recycled art because it’s fun to figure out where it came from, Gallaugher thinks that’s secondary.
“I don’t think people care whether it’s recycled or not,” she says. “I’m environmentally conscious, but that’s not my main focus. Most pieces are appreciated for their beauty rather than their material.”
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568