Nature of Sustainable Art | Visual Art | Salt Lake City Weekly

Nature of Sustainable Art 

Annual Earth-friendly art exhibit at Red Butte

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“Sustainable” probably isn’t the first word you think of in tandem with art. In fact, most genres of art are, on some level, associated with extravagance of materials. For example, tinctures of oil pigment used to create many museum masterpieces aren’t really recyclable; leftover oil paint is tricky to dispose of and even potentially poisonous, with some containing heavy metals and other toxic chemicals.

Red Butte Garden is sponsoring The Nature of Sustainable Art exhibit for the fifth year in a row, featuring local artists celebrating nature with artworks fashioned with natural and recycled materials. The initial version of the show took place in 2006, originally planned as a one-time event, with glass artist Jodi McRaney Rusho as one of the invited artists. The visitor feedback was positive enough that, in 2008, Red Butte asked her to become the curator for an annual show. This indoor show examines the transformation of mundane objects into original works of art, but it’s more than just that. It’s a way of making art that’s more in harmony with the natural world.

Dadaists and other experimental art pioneers have used discarded and found materials to create “recycled” art objects with often-subversive undertones as a critique of society’s commercialism.

The artists in the show at Red Butte are devoted to making things that have a better chance at second life on your wall—unlike, say, Marcel Duchamp’s toilet seat, which he hung on the wall and called art. While the participating artists are more focused on creating objects of beauty—all for sale through the garden’s gift shop—they’re still making a comment about commercialism. The show in 2011 featured a local artist, Reclaimed Sentiment, who used advertisements and other paper detritus of the world of commercialism to create collages with pointed social commentaries. This year’s show focuses on the theme of sustainability, which seems to deepen the focus on recycling and other sustainable practices.

That theme has been interpreted in numerous ways. “Some artists use sustainable materials to tell their story, and the tie-in to the theme is the materials themselves,” Rusho says. “Others address the theme as the story that their art is telling.”

Colleen Bryan’s mixed-media sculptures, composed of found materials, are both personal and historical. “Her work focuses primarily on women and their breakthrough moments, particularly the process of finding balance and beauty,” Rusho explains.

Amy and Stuart Batchler’s handmade jewelry and beeswax candles include dried flowers, and all the steps in the artists’ process are mindfully sustainable. The candles are eminently usable and environmentally friendly, both in their creation and in helping conserve electric lighting. Works like these show that art can have its own kind of ecology, a way of being in the world that adds beauty to daily life, but also becomes part of a cycle of materials that needn’t be wasteful or toxic. And it’s a form of recycling that’s do-it-yourself, rather than something like collecting aluminum to take to a facility, entrusting it to a mysterious machine of industry.

Casey Terry’s steel sculptures add a bit of whimsy to the show, and Jodie McDougall’s nuno-felted scarves, made from recycled silk clothing and wool that she cards herself, reinvigorate traditional practices. I mean, carding your own wool—how much more traditional can you get? Perhaps only raising your own sheep.

Michael Bégué contributes wood furniture, sculpture and paintings to the show. His paintings are perhaps the most purely “art” objects in the show, but they seem more organic in appearance and aesthetic, in additional to their process, created from a wide variety of sustainable materials.

Rusho’s work—recycled glass sculpture, jewelry and functional fine craft—uses window glass, which isn’t recyclable in our area and bears the weathered discoloration and scratches that show its history of use, some pieces decades old. Of her own work, Rusho says, “I love the idea that I can do the whole recycling process myself, all of the steps. I wish that we could all take one week and do the labor required to process all of the waste that we create into something new, into art. I’m certain that the experience would change the way that we, as a society, view our consumerism. I believe it would also change our relationship with nature as we shift focus from consuming to creating.”

It’s a method of not just trying to sustain the environment, but of sustaining the practice of art itself. “Working with recycled materials is challenging,” Rusho says. “There is no instruction manual, no manufacturer’s guide. It can be daunting work, but the challenge of figuring out the process and project is so unbelievably rewarding, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Red Butte Garden
300 Wakara Way
Through Feb. 26
Free with garden admission, $6-$8

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