December 2008 Issue
Four artists use found objects to create a novel installation at the Southern Ohio Museum.
Mother Nature’s wrath can be a thing of beauty. That’s what Darren Baker, curator of the Southern Ohio Museum, discovered one afternoon last fall as he wandered the banks of the Ohio River in Portsmouth following a flood.
The receding waters had left a magnificent find behind: a rectangular patch of maple that reminded Baker — a furniture maker — of a pergola. There was also a generous assortment of stumps that resembled the heads of bulls, birds and goats, and a tangled rootball that looked like an old-fashioned TV antenna.
“Marveling at the shapes of these objects was truly an ‘Aha!’ moment for me,” Baker enthuses, “and I began talking with other artists about the amazing discoveries.”
The result of those chats is “House of the River Sticks,” an installation comprising more than 100 pieces of debris found along the riverbank after fall and spring floods, on exhibit at the Southern Ohio Museum through February.
Baker, along with the museum’s assistant preparator Tom Bridwell and Shawnee State University professors Nick Gampp and Lane Raiser, put their collective artistic talents to work to turn trash into treasure. The four spent last winter assembling their truly one-of-a-kind objet d’art.
“We let the rain wash the funk off each piece, then scrubbed them down with wire brushes,” Baker says with a laugh.
In between the dirty work, they made time to admire each other’s finds, which included six pick-up truck loads’ worth of maple, poplar, oak and osage orange trees; baseballs, basketballs and footballs; a firehose; a hula hoop; and a frayed multi-colored hawser rope used for towing barges that looked like Spanish moss.
“For the ultimate bar bet,” Baker says, “ask your friends if they think a bowling ball can float.”
The answer about the 9-pound orb Baker found along the bank, he says, is counterintuitive to every physics law he knows.
The installation the quartet came up with resembles a house, complete with bed, chair and lamp. It is, says Baker, truly a visual ode to nature.
“Everything we did was dictated by the material,” he explains about the fact that the structure contains no 90-degree angles. “It all makes sense — at least to me,” Baker adds with a laugh.
The artists hope visitors will walk away with a new appreciation for what can be done with what, at first glance, appear to be cast-off materials.
“So many people would drive by these objects and not give them another thought,” he says. “Hopefully, this installation proves that things can be worth a second look — and that it pays to tidy up our riverbanks.”