February 27, 2010

Speaking of Trash... (Episode #2)

Here Comes the Garbage Barge
Written by: Jonah Winter & Illustrated by: Red Nose Studio

While at the SCBWI conference, I got to hear this book’s publisher speak about the process of bringing it to print. Apparently the book is based on actual events – the 1987 voyage of the Mobro 4000.

Escorted by the tugboat Breaking Dawn, the Mobro 4000 barge set sail on March 22, from Islip, New York carrying 3,168 tons of trash. The plan was to take the garbage to North Caroline where it would be turned into methane. However, while docked at Morehead City, a WRAL-TV news crew, acting on a tip, flew to the coast to investigate. The resulting Action News 5 report, alerted the North Carolina officials who consequently ordered the barge to move on. As the Mobro continued south along the coastline, it encountered further opposition. After being turned away by the Mexican Navy, the Mobro made it as far as Belize. Unable to pass off its undesirable cargo, the Mobro finally returned to New York where it was met with a restraining order, which prevented it from docking. Not until October was the refuse incinerated in Brooklyn, and its ash returned to Islip to be buried.


Though the trip itself turned out to be a complete fiasco, it brought waste management to the forefront of national discussion and it sparked new widespread recycling initiatives. During the next three years, most states passed laws requiring some kind of municipal recycling. The United States went from having about 600 cities with curbside recycling programs to having almost 10,000 (according to wasteage.com).

As if that doesn’t already make the project interesting…  

The process behind the illustrations adds another dimension to the story’s message. Each image is actually a photograph of a small-scale model designed and created by the artist. Working as a sculptor rather than a draftsman, the artist built his characters around flexible wire armatures and modeled their features with clay. Everything in their tiny environments was crafted either out of litter from the streets or objects found in the artist’s studio.  


For more about the book see: Red Nose Studio

February 18, 2010

December: Minneapolis, MN (Episode #1)

So it seems I have been terribly remiss.  Over the past few months, I’ve had so much to blog about but I just haven’t taken the time to sit down and do it. So here are a few organically connected episodes…


Of all the work we saw, between the Walker and The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, I was most struck by Michael Kareken’s exhibition “Scrap.”

From the adjoining gallery, Kareken’s enormous painting Scrap Bottles appeared to be purely abstract. However as I got closer, shapes then bottles became distinguishable in the enormous swirling color field. Standing in front of the work, I remember being overwhelmed by its scale (188”x168”) and compositional weight. The bottles near the bottom of the painting were exaggerated – larger than life, while those near the top were smaller and less distinct. This size gradation created the illusion of depth and gave the impression that I was looking up at the refuse instead of out and over it. With no external point of reference, it was impossible to gauge the height or breadth of the heap depicted by the painting. Was it a foreboding mountain or a mound that could eventually be leveled? Regardless, the chaotic lines created by the haphazardly piled bottles made the whole image feel unstable. The recyclables seemed to be on the verge of spilling out of the picture plane – threatening to drown anyone who dared to loiter for too long.

Strangely, despite this constant menace, there was also something disarming about the painting – an element running through the entire body of work. The painting was undeniably beautiful. Each of the bottles was so carefully represented. In the act of rendering them, the artist undoubtedly gave them much more time and attention than their previous owners had. With his eloquent paint handling and subtly nuanced color, Kareken seemed to be asking the viewer to pause for a second and acknowledge the overlooked frappuccino bottle, the salad dressing jar or the olive oil jug. Having out lived their utilitarian purposes, when handled so delicately, these empty containers became objects or forms to consider.

Could the bottles, apart from their contents, be valuable or even beautiful? Could the efficient system that produced them really be so bad? Maybe the menace comes from the way we have chosen to handle them – the excess of them?

I think I was so taken by Kareken’s work because his critique was complex. His treatment of the subject matter, made the work more than just simple environmentalist propaganda. Kareken didn’t hop on the “go green” bandwagon – the fad that has brought us recyclable packaging, carbon credits or reusable grocery store bags nor did he blatantly denounce our ‘gluttonous consumer culture.’ Instead he presented a quiet meditation on the recycling process – one that yields more questions than answers: Will it be enough or will we still be drowned in our good intentioned efforts? Though an inherently restorative process, does it still involve a kind of violence? If so, is it worth the violence?