Battle with bureaucracy spirals into work of art

November 06, 1994|By Karin Remesch | Karin Remesch,Contributing Writer

Hundreds of drinking vessels carefully collaged with documents and newspaper clippings sit on a shelf that spirals inward and upward 9 feet into the air.

It beckons you to its center.

Within moments, you are encircled by chronicles of an artist's battle with bureaucracy -- which ultimately resulted in the closing of a troubled Harford County landfill.

Jan Pierce Stinchcomb fought City Hall and won. Now she has immortalized her struggle in "Solid Waste/Work in Progress," on view through Friday in Harford Community College's Chesapeake Gallery.

Picking up a glass and reading a document on it, Mrs. Stinchcomb said, "Each drinking vessel represents the water supply, which is so vital to the life of every community, and each document applied to the vessels represents the potential threat to that water posed by nearby landfills."

Mrs. Stinchcomb, 38, said she chose the spiral format "for its eternally expanding and contracting characteristics, which seemed to best describe my feelings and experience of entering and working with an overwhelming bureaucratic structure."

The exhibit contains about 2,300 drinking vessels in various shapes and sizes, ranging from paper cups, Coke cans and baby bottles to plastic glasses, fine china and crystal. It could easily expand to 5,000 items, the artist said.

"Ultimately, I hope to have one glass for each document that was collected or generated in order to force government to take action," said Mrs. Stinchcomb.

She is quick to add that the exhibit is not solely her work, that many hands and hearts helped create it. "The installation documents not only my struggle, but also the community's struggle to address environmental issues," she explained.

The wooden spiral shelf was crafted by Bob Dillon, an environmentalist who has been fighting a rubble fill in Joppa. Some vessels represent the Gravel Hill community's five-year political and legal struggle to block a proposed asbestos landfill.

Mrs. Stinchcomb's battle with bureaucracy began in December 1991, when she questioned a county decision to allow expansion DTC of the Spencer Sand & Gravel Inc. rubble fill in Abingdon despite indications of ground water contamination.

"I went to that hearing all nervous and intimidated. . . . I didn't know anything about landfills or the Maryland Department of Environment, but when Spencer's people said it was a good facility and the general perception was that those questioning the expansion were just emotional, I just sort of snapped and lost faith," she recalled.

"In order to counteract that [not in my back yard] image, which allows government to discount the legitimate concerns of the individuals, I decided that it was important to put together a collection of irrefutable facts to present to the government in a manner that could not be ignored."

Mrs. Stinchcomb also was compelled by a desire to find out whether an individual still had a voice in government planning and action. Using the Freedom of Information Act, she spent five months and hundreds of dollars of her own money reviewing state and local government files.

"At first, I had no idea what I was trying to find out, but my instincts told me that something wasn't right," she said. "As an artist, I am accustomed to pursuing answers to questions that are largely unknown . . . the need to better understand the world around me allowed me to throw myself into the maze of bureaucracy."

Mrs. Stinchcomb came upon documents disclosing that water quality tests on the landfill site indicated significant levels of trichlorethylene, a suspected cancer-causing agent. A 1980 inspection and photographs documented the chemical's presence.

She collected data that raised questions about underground fires, odors, sediment control problems and illegal expansion of the landfill.

"It became an all-consuming mission, I was living and breathing these documents. . . . It became like a huge puzzle, and each document presented a clue," she said.

Mrs. Stinchcomb delivered her report to county officials in May 1992. By late summer, the rubble fill was closed.

But in her pursuit to find answers to her questions, Mrs. Stinchcomb felt she was failing as an artist.

A full-time instructor at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, she had not started on artwork she was to display at a faculty art show and had no idea what to create.

"I was beginning to live in a real conflict when a good friend and colleague pointed to what had been in front of me all along," Mrs. Stinchcomb said. He told her to "do something about that dump," she said, and she realized she could convey a message about democracy and the environment through her artwork.

She scouted flea markets for drinking vessels. She picked up cups along roads. Friends gave her boxes of cups and glasses. "They were everywhere in the house, on the floor and covering the mantelpiece," Mrs. Stinchcomb said, laughing.

She collaged documents onto the drinking vessels while she talked to politicians on the phone.

"I lost a few phones in the process because they would get so covered with glue," she said.

Following the spiral of her work in the gallery, Mrs. Stinchcomb picks up a baby bottle covered with an article on mustard gas incineration at Aberdeen Proving Ground. "This is reality, children are growing up in communities with these ghosts as issues," she says. "We don't even have a good evacuation plan for that area."

She points to other vessels, including a cup that deals with the Tollgate landfill and a glass covered with a letter from Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.

She gingerly touches some of the documents glued to the vessels and says, "I knew the documents so well they were so much a part of my life. . . . It's funny. When you are fighting for water or just good government, you have to do it through the law, with these thousands of papers."

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