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Archive for April, 2010

I am always photographing the junk I find at the Falls of the Ohio.  Looking through my newer images I was amazed by all the toys I have come across recently.  Now these are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  All time, this would be an immense category on its own.  When I’m doing my usual posts, I’ll throw in an odd find if I think it contributes to the story.  Otherwise, this stuff just gets buried in my computer.  Maybe when I’m an old man, I’ll come back and revisit this stuff.  By then, a lot of this junk will appear dated and nostalgic.  I’ll probably look that way too!

All the stuff I’m about to present is made of plastic, which is made from resins derived mostly from crude oil.  I remember seeing a picture of a middle class American home with all its plastic contents arranged in the front yard.  It looked like just about everything this house contained was made from plastic and it was shocking!

I have been following the news lately about that oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and it has me feeling very anxious.  I don’t know why more people aren’t getting freaked out about this?  Essentially, you have a hole drilled deep into the ocean’s floor that’s hemorrhaging oil and the attempts to plug this hole haven’t worked.  The slick is already hundreds of miles long and will soon come into contact with the Gulf Coast’s rich estuaries.  A couple of years a go, my family vacationed in Gulf Shores, Alabama and it was fun and beautiful.  I don’t want to imagine those white beaches fouled with oil.

I debate with myself about whether something like this event can be considered a “natural disaster”?  Granted it probably doesn’t fit the usual definition, however, haven’t we (as a species of animal) that originated here make us “natural” as well?  Isn’t a big part of the problem that we have successfully convinced ourselves that we are on some other plane and that life’s rules don’t apply to us?  Aren’t all man-made disasters in effect natural disasters?

Often it seems more convenient to bury our heads in the sand and pretend events like this oil spill have no long-term effects.  Where is the outrage and our will to do the right thing?

Life is interconnected to life and it is ridiculous to think our mistakes don’t affect other organisms that have a right to exist in their own right.

Everywhere life is under pressure from the global scale of our activities.

The sad truth is unless we find ways to reconnect and revere nature…we will eventually will be  hammered by it.  One thing I see over and over at the Falls is that life is indifferent and doesn’t play favorites.  Will we be the architects of our own undoing?

If crude oil is a disappearing resource, doesn’t it make sense to use it for things that really matter?  Do we truly need to lock so much of it up in uses that are this disposable and forgettable?

Often it seems to me that we are in a big rush to go nowhere as fast as we can.  Why the big hurry?  Life is short enough and consuming everything we come into contact with isn’t going to make the experience more meaningful.  It’s past time to slow down and rearrange our priorities.

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It doesn’t happen very often, but this was as close to a shut-out as I have experienced here at the Falls.  On this trip I didn’t make any sculptures and the resulting images weren’t as memorable.  Granted I didn’t give myself any time out here to speak of and there were other frustrations.  For one, I could barely get out of my neighborhood because of two simultaneous Derby festival events.  In a relatively tight area you could watch 15,000 runners go by or attend an arts and crafts fair.  Over the years the running thing is getting out of control and a different course needs to be constructed that goes around the city instead of paralyzing it.  You should have seen all the plastic bottles left by the side of the road and the hundreds that were discarded on the Second Street Bridge.  Many of these bottles were blown into the river by a steady wind.  Oh, and an hour after arriving at the park it rained really, really hard.  Sorry to be so down, especially when the sign above says “NO DUMPING”! 

I knew it would be a hassle with the festival activity and potential bad weather, but I went for it anyway.  It’s migratory bird season and I reasoned that if there was just one bird that I hadn’t seen before or if I made any other memorable sightings than it would be worth it!  At least the iris flowers looked nice by the Interpretive Center.

I decided to take the Woodland Trail that goes through a variety of habitats and see what was around.  I came across a small flock of White-throated Sparrows, but that was today’s avian highlight.  The sky was overcast and had that quality that makes everything seem backlit and tough to photograph.  I will say there was one thing happening that was absolutely delicious and a joy to partake in.

The lovely fragrance of honeysuckle vines and blooming honey locust trees hung in the humid air.  Their combined scents created a heavy, sweet perfume that it made it easier to appreciate the day for what it was.  On the walk back, I checked out the river and did find one interesting item.  It’s nature’s template cast off after use!  This is how oaks and tulips came to be.

I have been planning a drawing project and so this is a serendipitous find.  I definitely will put this template to work.  As I was walking along the river the little bit of mist became a monsoon.  There was a single huge flash of lightning and the resulting thunder could be heard bouncing around the valley.  I guess even Earth Day must take back seat to the Kentucky Derby Festival because the park moved their observance from the official day of April 22 to May 8! That’s one way to make any day, Earth Day!

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Dodging snakes and collecting washed up cigarette lighters with my friend Jeff was not the only action we had on this excursion to the Falls of the Ohio.  By now, I should not be surprised by what turns up at this remarkable location…because it happens with such regularity.  For me, the thrill of discovery has become addictive and interwoven into my creative process.  Recalling events, I believe it was my friend Jeff who stumbled upon this revolting artifact and so I will begin this story here.

It’s a very large jar of bologna.  The contents have more than settled, in fact they have decayed to the point of becoming cream of bologna.  I know, this is completely disgusting, but bear with me for the real point of the story follows this discovery.  It was a short distance from this jar that we encountered another remarkable member of the Genus Polystyrenus.

Hidden just out of sight among the debris line was this very large and aggressive looking insect.  I estimate that this impressive creature was about two feet long.  It would be an under estimation to say that both Jeff and I were taken aback (how we both avoided voiding our bladders upon our persons, I will never know).  After what seemed a very long length of time, the amateur naturalist in me took over and I began taking photographs and making observations.  Here’s a detail of its head and impressive jaws.  It’s small antennae were wiggling back and forth.

Looking at the mandibles, I’m guessing that this creature had adapted to eating meat or carrion, both of which are found at the Falls.  It emitted a sickly sweet odor.  I think our large bug friend had discovered the bologna jar before we did and we may have interrupted its meal?  Because this ant-wasp, (seems to have characteristics of both) did not defend its bologna bode well for Jeff and I.  In fact, we did learn that despite its fearsome appearance our bug friend was retiring and unaggressive.  I decided to tag along and learn what I could about this amazing one of a kind animal.

From a short distance away, I was able to observe some behaviors that I recorded with my camera.  I believe that my assumption about it’s being a scavenger is on target.  I watched our insect “friend” actively investigating an old bone it had come across.  The bone was rolled around in its jaws as though our bug was tasting it?  Finding no meat, it simply dropped the bone.  I also noted that this creature has vestigial wings that have atrophied to a yellow flap found attached to the rear of its thorax and ironically has the appearance of a fly swatter.  Perhaps its large size makes flight an impossibility and the wings have shrunk to the present size?

Near the tree line, and keeping a respectful distance away, I observed Polystyrenus investigating a large plastic pipe mostly buried in the sand.  It did attempt to dig away the sand blocking the entrance to the pipe, but soon abandoned this effort.  I don’t want to assume too much, but I was intuiting at the time that it was looking for a burrow in which to hide, etc…  I did make a discreet effort to determine its gender, but was unsuccessful.  Here’s my last picture of it.

Amazingly, our bug was making short work from what was once a large barge cable that was originally as thick as a stout man’s forearm.  It’s jaws easily shredded the nylon strands.  Why it was doing this…will require more research.  Shortly after this image was taken, the sound of loud, boorish people coming down the riverbank spooked our insect and it took off with surprising speed over the sandy surface of the Falls.  Perhaps it understood that Jeff and I posed no threat, but it couldn’t be certain of the strangers?  During the short amount of time I was studying this creature I also noted that it didn’t have claws to speak of and didn’t possess a stinger.  Perhaps I will encounter this insect or other large insect species again because this is not the only time I have come across similar giants.  Take a look at these specimens for which the genus Polystyrenus was originally named. 

This has been classified as Polystyrenus ichthyphagia, based in part on this remarkable photograph of it feeding on a non-native, dead fish.  I made this discovery several years a go…in fact, it is with some regret that I collected (euphemism for killed) this specimen and one other that turned out to be a male and female.  This was done of course in the name of science.  The one feeding on the fish is the female.  Note the flute-like ovipositor and vestigial wings which made a raspy sound.  The mouth parts on P. icthyphagia have adapted for sucking.  Why these large insects have appeared at the Falls is inconclusive.  But I believe this is evolution at work.  The more we change our environment, the more we affect not only ourselves but all the other creatures that call this place home.  It can’t help to release tons of fireworks chemicals into the atmosphere and what we do with the water in general is a crime.  I will leave my soap box for the moment.  I suppose the reason that these giant insects have evaded previous detection is that they so strongly imitate garbage and detritus that they can elude most people’s notice.  Here’s a photograph of the dried and preserved male and female P. ichthyphagia with its egg case.  There is some sexual dimorphism with the male being considerably smaller than the female.  These specimens are in separate collections now.  The name Polystyrenus was chosen because the exoskeletons of these amazing insects so strongly resembles polystyrene, also generically known as Styrofoam.  The largest bug here is over three feet long.

As a kid, I fell in love with one particular story that appeared in an old Natural Geographic entitled “Giant Insects of the Amazon”.  Its author, Paul Zahl must have had the best job in the world to be able to travel to exotic places to study rare and unusual animals.  I suppose, I’m doing something similar, but I’m not traveling far from home and making my own giants.  Here’s the last picture of how I began the latest Polystyrenus receiving inspiration from the materials I find on location.  Although I didn’t use all the stuff here…it provided a template of sorts. 

I dedicate this post to Julia Oldham, bug lover and current artist in residence at Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in nearby Clermont, Kentucky.

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With Thunder over, my good friend Jeff accompanied me to the Falls the very next day.  He was on a mission to find wood for a home improvement project and the Falls has plenty of that.  On our way down to the river we passed a fisherman who warned us that there was a belligerent snake ahead of us that had tried to strike him!  Okay, we are forewarned, but not overly concerned.  Amazingly, we came across this snake.  It had not moved much since the morning was still cool and it was lying in the sun trying to get its metabolism going.  It’s a harmless Eastern Garter Snake and here are pictures of it.  This snake will try to bite, but it’s really very harmless.

This snake is often found near water, but can’t be classified as a water snake.  I did get a little closer and the snake did nothing.  Here’s a detail of its head.  This guy is about fifteen inches long.  I like its coppery-eyes.

Jeff and I had a good laugh over the fisherman’s over reaction!  At least to his credit, he didn’t try to kill this snake which happens far too much in this world.  Snakes do carry with them that element of surprise, but most of them are really beneficial.  Even if I had come across a poisonous species, I would just respect it and leave it alone.  I made another discovery and I guess I would have to classify this as a signed artwork?

It would have been easy to overlook this, but I turned my head in this direction and there it was.  Someone named “Hollie” took the time to sign and date this piece of wood near this old tire.  I felt this person was calling attention to the poetry in this space in a way similar to the work of Anne and Patrick Poirier.  It’s probably just me reading too much into the situation, but I did find this simple act compelling.

Jeff found the wood he was looking for and several potentially nice walking sticks too.  I found Styrofoam which I also used to make something, but will wait until next time to show you.  Jeff and I have been good friends since our undergraduate art school days at Murray State University.  Jeff is a talented artist in his own right and does drawing and ceramics.  He teaches art to middle school children.  During our hike at the Falls, Jeff was amazed by the number of cast off cigarette lighters he kept finding and started picking them up.  Here’s what he eventually did with them.

Jeff collected 23 lighters, but only lined up 20 for this photo.  He could have collected a sack full of these lighters if he wanted to.  Here’s the view from the other side showing my friend working on a walking stick.

After the pyrotechnics of the previous evening, this was as laid back and relaxing a day as could be.  We each left the Falls with as much river treasure as we wanted to carry.  I also had a camera full of images that I could use to post on this blog.  Eventually, the wind started to pick up and with the lighter piece in shambles, took that as our cue to go home.

On our way back to the parking lot, we passed by the wall that separates the Ohio River from this stretch of the Falls area.  With the City of Louisville in the background, I photographed these up rooted trees that were deposited here during the last high water incident.  They will stay there until the Ohio River decides to carry them away.

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The event was two days a go, but the after images keep flashing before my eyes.  The fireworks display, Thunder Over Louisville marks the official start of the Kentucky Derby Festival which climaxes with a two-minute horse race the first Saturday in May.  Year after year, this fireworks show is usually the largest in the country and has become a Louisville tradition.  I attended with my son Michael and our friends Jeff and his son, Holden.  If you are wondering what this has to do with the usual content of my blog…well it’s just across the river from where I make my art.  The bridge in the distance in the above image is the one that has appeared so many times before in my posts.  Louisville is where it is because of the Falls of the Ohio.  Following are a few of my  images from this event.

The newspapers reported that 700,000 people attended this year’s show.  The weather was clear, bright and sunny, but turned cool after sundown.  People begin choosing the best spots to view Thunder fairly early in the day.  If you arrive late, you may have to settle for a less than prime spot.  All the hotels and taller buildings facing the river are packed with viewers and many fund-raisers and corporate parties are occurring.  Looking for a place to park your car?  Spots within walking distance of the action were asking for and receiving $20 to $30 dollars a space.  We took the bus which was a lot cheaper!  Across the river in Indiana, the situation is the same.  People are jamming the riverbank and facing Louisville.  Their view takes in the city’s skyline.  Here are folks by the river and sitting under one of the world’s largest clocks.

For entertainment, there is always people watching.  It’s an international crowd and we also receive visitors from all over the United States.  The number of nonresident automobile license plates climbs dramatically.  There is lots of food, drink, and expensive colorful souvenirs all creating a festive atmosphere.

One of the big daylight attractions is an airshow.  The skies above Louisville’s riverfront becomes a showcase of mostly military aviation.  The noise some of the fighter jets can make is incredible. Vintage aircraft fly alongside their counterparts in the current inventory.  Here’s a view of one skydiver in the show…

…and one of the more amazing aircraft, the B-1 Lancer stealth bomber which made a few quick passes before flying back to its base in South Dakota.

Of considerably older vintage are the steamboats.  Louisville boasts the oldest boat still going in the country, The Belle of Louisville, but a sister vessel like the Belle of Cincinnati has made the trip downriver to take in the fireworks.  The bridge above the boat is the 2nd Street Bridge and is the one I usually take to the Falls.  During Thunder, the bridge is closed and becomes a feature in the fireworks show.

The fireworks are shot off of two barges anchored in the middle of the Ohio River with the 2nd Street Bridge between them.  Usually there is some loose theme that is choreographed by a medley of popular tunes.  Once the fireworks begin in earnest the noise is palpable.  The concussion of some of the more powerful rockets hits you right in the chest!  Here’s a picture with fireworks exploding off of the bridge and includes a “waterfall” of fire.

The show is the work of the Zambelli Family which has been involved with fireworks for several generations.  Each year there is usually something new…a special effect or color that hasn’t been seen here before.  Here’s something in a rainbow palette.

I have to say, that while I was there I didn’t pay any attention to all the digital devices people were using to capture the event.  It’s when I downloaded my pictures to my computer that I noticed them!

Thunder Over Louisville lasts about half an hour of continuous major fireworks.  There’s lots of smoke and afterward lots of debris from the huge crowd.  For about an hour or so, traffic away from the epicenter is very slow going.  It takes a couple of days for the city to put itself back in order.  I often wonder what the environmental effects of all this are, but the average Louisvillian has come to expect and enjoy this spectacle.  I went to the Falls the very next day and had a quieter adventure.  More on that later this week.

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Just heard from Nancy Theiss, Executive Director at the Oldham County History Center that the opening for my part of “Life at the River’s Edge” is scheduled for May 6, from 6 till 8 pm.  I’m looking forward to meeting new friends and folks who live by or are interested in the river.  I would be out at the Falls today, but we have a “small event” happening in the Louisville area that all but makes that impossible.

Every year we kick off two weeks of Kentucky Derby festivities with one of the largest fireworks shows in the world.  It’s called “Thunder Over Louisville” and it also includes an air show during the daylight hours.  Some years, crowds of over 600,000 people would line the riverbanks to get a good view.  The picture of so many people gathered in one place reminds me of images of seal rookeries or seabird colonies where innumerable individuals are jammed onto every available space on the beach.  You can imagine the automobile traffic especially when the event ends!  Today’s weather will be on the cool side, so we will see if that affects attendance.

The image starting this post is one of my favorite Falls sculptures that I have made and it will be on display at Oldham County.  I call it “Pelvis has an Heir”.  In the dim recesses of my mind, I think this piece has something to do with how life succeeds life in the guise of this imagined king who with luck will be followed in his footsteps by his tiny heir.  There are (or were) living elements to this sculpture.  The masks worn by these figures are animal hip bones found at the Falls.  In the case of the larger piece…I think it’s from a small deer.  The other tiny pelvis…I have no idea.  Both figures have coal elements which were created from the remains of ancient life.  And both sport Asiatic Clam shell ears which are the most common freshwater mussels I run into at the Falls and are also a non-native species.  The found wood parts (including the base) are of course from trees.  That brings us to the Styrofoam and plastic parts, but these are also created from petroleum by-products that are also distilled from ancient life.  The Styrofoam, polystyrene bodies and heads are just as I found them shaped and formed by the river.

There is also a sidebar to this work that came out of various readings and conversations with fellow artists and has to do with the notions of fame, permanence, and immortality.  I know artists who have chosen to work in particular materials because the objects and by extension the artist’s name will supposedly last forever.  I don’t derive much peace of mind knowing that a ceramic vessel I made could survive a nuclear bomb!  And how many bronzes were melted down to make cannon balls anyway? 

I’m going to hedge my bets and say that when I’m gone, I probably won’t care very much about anything especially what happens to my or other people’s art.  Does Praxiteles care that his “Hermes and Dionysos”  is missing an arm and coat of paint?  Athough I do take care in how I make things, if what I create has value and is ultimately worth preserving, than someone will find a way to conserve it if necessary.  Isn’t that something we are running into with much contemporary art on a regular basis now?  Aren’t many of the concerns about permanence more about ego than anything else?  Through these Falls projects, I have come to emphasize what happens in the living moment more than I used to.  I think this happens when you work out in nature.  I’ve read that the only form of immortality that matters in life is that little bit of genetic distinctiveness that was you that gets passed on to your children.

Since this post has fewer images than usual, I’ll end with another favorite Falls project.  I call this image, “The Sound of Running Water is Music to My Ears”  The figure is made from the usual junk I find by the river and photographed at the Falls of the Ohio State Park and will also be featured in the Oldham County exhibit.

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Last weekend I traveled the 32 minute drive from Louisville to LaGrange, Kentucky along I-71.  The drive runs parallel and upriver to the Ohio River.  I was delivering my artwork to the Oldham County Historical Society to be a part of a series of exhibits exploring “Life at the River’s Edge”.  The historical society’s Executive Director, Nancy Stearns Theiss, had seen my work on an earlier occasion and was kind enough to invite me to show in their museum.  Nancy and her family live along the river and so she was already familiar with the types of materials I use for my art.

LaGrange is a picturesque town especially during the spring when so many flowering trees are in bloom.  The Oldham County History Center (building with the green tin roof) and complete with root cellar, encompasses The Peyton Samuel Head Family Museum which has interactive exhibits and a collection of artifacts illustrating life in early Oldham County.  I usually can’t resist the charms of a small museum.  You just never know what you will discover in such a place!  After looking around, I became really excited to think about my work appearing in such a context!

I love the unusual juxtapositions and displays of historic items that share space with one another.  It’s a context filled with mixed up memories.  I have always found trying to make sense of the past to be a poignant endeavor.  I often think  about how people in the future might view the times we live in.  My sculptures are certainly mixed up creations and the materials I use have a benchmark quality to them that speaks directly to our moment. 

I liked the idea that my art would be under the same roof as displays of old tools, dolls, and even a fossilized mammoth vertebrae.  Despite the sign, I was given permission to pick this old bone up and I was surprised at how heavy it was.  You definitely would not want to drop this thing on your foot!

I’m always amazed by how a small town can produce a person who would go on to significantly influence the larger culture.  Oldham County’s example of this is the life and work of D.W. Griffith who is considered the creator of American film.  He was born in the county in 1875 and eventually passed away in Hollywood in 1948.  Years later, his body was exhumed and he was reburied back where he came from in Oldham County.

Reading one of the museum’s handouts, I learned that Griffith invented many different  film making techniques including the use of flashbacks, fade outs, moving cameras, and high-angle photography.  Of course, I have heard of D.W. Griffith, but I don’t think I have ever watched a complete film before.  At the museum, you have the chance to watch some of his short films.  I recorded this image of an actor in blackface going into a burning building to rescue a child.  You film buffs out there…do you recognize this scene and the film it comes from?  I missed the opening credits and there was more in the museum to see.

Already on view were the paintings and decorated furniture by Oldham County artist Breck Morgan.  He paints in an accomplished rustic style that emulates early American folk art.  His illustration is on the dust jacket “Oldham County:  Stories from the River’s Edge” which is a new history of the county written by Nancy Stearns Theiss.  Here are images of both the cover….

…and the book’s author with my “Cat Man” sculpture.

I brought eleven sculptures, six large digital prints, and my famous “Found Food Collection”.  I’m looking forward to seeing them arranged in the museum.  The show opens this week and will run until August 1.

Later I will give both a talk about my art and participate in a workshop making artworks from objects found along the river.  Sounds like fun and I can’t wait to return to see everything in place.  If you want to learn more about the Oldham County Historical Society, here is their website’s address:  www.oldhamcountyhistoricalsociety.org

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