Art made from Back River trash hits auction block Sunday

Students turn river debris into art

May 19, 2011|By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

Most of the artwork that will be displayed Sunday on the grounds of a restored 18th-century mansion on Back River began as debris retrieved from that beleaguered waterway.

Students from Maryland Institute College of Art and several Baltimore County schools gave a second life to detritus that volunteers have pulled from the river. The blend of recycling and creativity produced some truly abstract results that will be auctioned at the first Trash Art show at Ballestone-Stansbury House in Essex.

"It's a new approach to trash in our waterways," said Brian Schilpp, project manager for the Back River Restoration Committee, an activist group working to clean up the eastern county waterway that flows into the Chesapeake Bay. "We have hubcap trees, sculptures of piled metal and anything that could be made out of trash."

Far from the typically elegant gallery showing, this one features a 6-foot-long fish skeleton made of rusted metal, whimsical cardboard robots with bottle-cap eyes and animal figures carved from foam rubber. Looking for a lawn ornament? How about a 4-foot-tall metal sculpture that evokes a duck hunter, complete with cap, boots and rifle, or maybe a figure fashioned from crab-pot float markers? Its head is a softball and its metal feet look like old-time shoe stays.

The artists had all manner of material at their disposal. A good portion of Baltimore's uncollected trash — from the bottles tossed into storm drains to the litter dropped carelessly on the streets — seems to wash into Back River, long considered one of Maryland's most degraded waterways. A boom installed by the county about 14 months ago has already collected more than 340,000 pounds of trash and nearly 2,500 tires.

MICA students spent a week clearing trash from the river near the Essex Airpark, and much of what they saw resonated with them, said Dominic Terlizzi, who teaches sculpture and elements of visual thinking at the institute.

"These students did not go to the art store for supplies, but all the stuff they used had value," Terlizzi said. "By removing it from the river, they were saving the environment. Then, they saw they could transform trash and give it another life."

MICA freshman Gil Plaks lives in Reisterstown and had never been on Back River until he volunteered for the cleanup. His group found old motor parts, two rusted cars, construction debris and mounds of plastic bottles, toys and containers.

"A river should not be the city's trash can," Plaks said.

As he sifted through the trash he found so many items that he said should not be fouling nature, and those served as his inspiration. He made a fantasy landscape of broken glass and created a cityscape centered around a brown plastic sign printed with "Value City." He melted the plastic — a gray storage tub, CDs and containers — into one ugly heap, attached the sign and added a flickering light.

"Maybe the message is plastic is eternal and we should be careful about where we put it," said Steve Verch, an attorney who works with the restoration committee and was helping to set up the art show.

The students painted designs on the most interesting bottles. They turned driftwood into wall art, plastic pieces into pinwheels and scrap metal into whimsical planters. The Key Bridge is replicated in wood and coiled wires and a map of Maryland, with slightly inaccurate borders, is made of pierced thin metal. An elementary school class recreated aerial images with blue grocery bags.

One sculptor mounted a beer can — its faded Budweiser label barely readable and its zip-top opener a key to its age — onto a flattened football and bolted the items onto a stark white frame.

"Please do not litter" was visible in raised letters at the top of the beer can.

"I won't be surprised if this stuff sells," Terlizzi said. "It's weird kitsch."

Trash Art runs from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday at Ballestone-Stansbury House, 1935 Back River Neck Road, Essex. Admission is $20. Information: or 443-414-4384.

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