The other evening I took a short walk from my apartment to New York's Soho neighborhood (South of Houston, pronounced House-ton, not like the city in Texas, by the way). It's a great area, full of narrow cobblestone streets and soaring 1800s buildings, decorated with ornate columns, detailed carvings and fine grillwork. The buildings used to house garment sweatshops and other small factories, but now host art galleries, boutiques and luxury lofts, with high ceilings and walls of glass.
I checked out one gallery with an abstract feel, where one of the large white walls had been sliced up, the drywall fractured into an eye-catching, irregular mosaic. Adjacent walls had patterns made from bits of yarn, reminding me of how Kurt Cobain supposedly decorated a modest apartment, before he got famous. In the center of the gallery an Italian publishing company was selling art books. Up the street was a closed gallery, the only life being the bizarre figure at right, an animatronic crazyman who sat up from the operating table and shook his creepy gray head every few minutes.
It was fun watching the creepy robot guy startle passersby, but the highlight of the evening was definitely finding ecoartspace. Founded in 1997 by Tricia Watts, ecoartspace has a bicoastal presence, in Los Angeles as well as NYC. Amy Lipton joined in 1999, and that year the project officially joined the non-profit Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs, which is based in LA. ecoartspace is a national leader in unifying art with care and concern for the environment. The projects the group supports typically have a strong collaborative and educational component, and have highlighted such topics as global warming, wind power, water use in the desert and more.
On display in ecoartspace's small Soho gallery was selections from the fascinating Habitat for Artists (HFA) project. In the series Hudson Valley artist Simon Draper invited other local artists to come work in six foot-by-six foot sheds (Thoreau's cabin was ten feet by fifteen feet). The sheds were made of recycled materials (including other art works), and participants were encouraged to adapt them to their own needs, and make them their own. Artists who accepted the challenge include Chris Albert, Alexis Elton, Sarah Mussen and popular folk singer Dar Williams.
Draper, who was born in Wales but lives in Cold Spring, New York, is interested in the relationship between shelter/habitat and the artistic process. "As an artist, I wanted to become more conscious of what I'm working with," Draper told me at the gallery, as he showed off the art shed that had been transported there. "What is the essential aspect of creativity?" he asked.Draper said he first got the idea for the art sheds after he heard that someone had recognized a piece of art made by his mother in law in the walls of an ice house in Minnesota!
As fewer and fewer artists can afford to live and work in New York City, even Brooklyn, the sheds now take on an interesting metaphor for the physical environment that fosters creativity. Draper sees artists as pioneers in developing neighborhoods, but who must often leave the places they helped to nurture and create when rents go up.
"The shed is also a metaphor for immediacy," said Draper. "It's basic carpentry. It's made of inexpensive materials, it's not air tight."
Draper hopes that the sheds might eventually host a more permanent art residency, perhaps with solar panels to provide more flexibility. As it stands he plans to offer programs in New Paltz, at Solar One in Manhattan, and in Pennsylvania. One upcoming workshop will invite people to bring in junk mail, which will be turned into art.
One of the hallmarks of Draper's and ecoartspace's work is collaboration, and for this show friends were invited to contribute recycled art panels, decorated as the spirit moved the creators. According to Draper, the standard-size panels can be used for structural elements and adornment, on sheds or other useful buildings.
The panels displayed in Soho demonstrated a wide range of sensibilities, but one theme was constant: an emphasis on creative reuse, or recycling as it were. One panel showcased used packing "peanuts," while several used bits of broken glass, reclaimed metal or plastic containers. One creative piece was constructed entirely from used paint stir sticks, with a multitude of hues provided by past projects.
Artist Carl Van Brunt of Beacon's Van Brunt Gallery was on hand at ecoartspace. He explained that he worked with Draper on his panel, having used digital imaging software to expand on the conventional brushstrokes of his colleague.
Also in attendance was Austria-born Franziska Swayzee, who explained that she was very interested in working with cast-off plastic and paper, "because we produce so much of it." After she started working with this unusual medium, she claims she became "surprised by the range of colors."
Here is a look at one of the panels, made from recycled materials:
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