Flattened Musk Turtle

Today my students made sculptures out of trash. In an assignment that I borrowed from Maine book artist Rebecca Goodale, they chose an endangered species from Alabama and created a sculpture made from garbage they found on campus. What drew me to Goodale’s project was the idea of building likenesses of these creatures out of the very materials that were destroying them. (In many cases, the 117 endangered plant and animal species in Alabama number only in the hundreds.) In a way, they became effigies, a reminder of how the little things we throw away add up. A reminder of how our actions–no matter how insignificant we may find them–have consequences.

They may appear kooky at first, with their bottle cap eyes and cigarette-butt legs, but there’s a certain poignancy here as well. One look around campus after a big game weekend shows that the majority of us aren’t all that concerned with our carbon footprint. Long after the tailgaters have left on Saturday, it takes all of Sunday to free the quad, the stadium, and the parking lots of their heaps of refuse. If this project had been assigned on a Monday, the sculptures could have been the size of Volkswagens.

Red Hills Salamander

It takes a special kind of person to make something beautiful out of rubble–but I see it happening more and more. I’m not sure if that’s because more people are recycling in new and inventive ways, or if it’s because my interest in the idea makes me see it everywhere. But I’m enamored with people who do this–whether they are artists, historians, architects, or the teenager next door. I saw it in Eastern Kentucky, in an old quarry that had been stripped bare. Tired of staring at this hideous scar, the town was making it into a golf course. In Birmingham, Alabama, the once thriving Sloss Furnaces had fallen into a state of decay in the 1970s and was scheduled for demolition–but after much public outcry it was salvaged, and later renovated into an educational center for metal arts. One of the most moving examples is in San Antonio, Texas, where a dilapidated rock quarry (abandoned in 1915) was reborn as the breathtaking Japanese tea garden. Through a heartbreaking period in the 1940s, the Japanese-American artist Kimi Eizo Jingu, who designed the garden, was run out of the city–thus giving the site another ugly scar. But in 1984, the garden was rededicated and has since been renamed the Jingu gardens in an attempt to pay proper homage to its creator.

Does it take a visionary to make beauty from garbage? Does it take genius? Or does it simply take a little creativity and conviction? This time of year, I’m always inspired by the MacArthur fellows–people who, with a little creativity and a lot of drive, make us see a piece of this world as passionately as they do, at least for a moment. It reminds me of all the things we’re capable of, if we give ourselves the chance to try making our visions a reality. Based on the sculptures made from campus trash, I’d say that it doesn’t take a “genius” at all–at least not in the intellectual sense that we often use to deride ourselves. It just takes the ability to look past what is in front of us, and imagine what could be, what should be, and how we might get there.

Gopher Frog