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Speak Out: Is it art, or is it compost?

By Lisa Wersal
ART TIMES Sept/ Oct 2011     

While on a bird-watching hike at a nearby nature center, I noticed that off in the distance there were piles of grass clippings scattered about one area of the lawn.  It seemed odd to have such large clumps of dead grass left behind from mowing, so I assumed the piles were deliberate — perhaps part of some scientific experiment, maybe involving the lifecycle of some insect.  From my vantage point, I could see little markers next each pile, which I assumed would reveal detailed information about what was being tested.

To my surprise, as I got closer, I discovered that the piles were molded into distinct shapes ("snake," "camel," "salamander," “hamster”), and that each form included additional materials — leaves, tree bark, twigs, berries, pine cones, twine, brightly colored yarns — to both bolster construction, and provide additional texture for eyes, claws, tongues, etc.  This was not science; it was art.

The nature center hosts day camps for children, and this was clearly one of the students’ art projects, using (mostly) woodsy material as sculpting medium.  The markers provided the names of the pieces and the artists, as examples, “Calisopher” (bunny) by Bailey, “Penguins” by Emma and Savanah, and “Koala Bear Family” by Kiki.

Amazingly, many of the sculptures were still intact, having survived a strong storm with heavy rain the night before.  Evidently, grass clippings are more durable than one might expect.

Though all of the pieces were imaginative and delightful, Bailey’s “Calisopher” caught my eye.  I guessed that Bailey was a bit older than the other children, as she seemed to possess a more mature “eye,” demonstrating skill to capture considerable detail and depth.  Her rabbit was a well-proportioned, complete animal, with sturdy haunches and feet, and a slightly arched backbone.  With its ears drawn back, the rabbit conveyed an alert, observant quality, and I half expected it to suddenly startle, and bound away.  As I studied the rabbit’s textured coat, it seemed as though compost materials might have been a chosen medium for the piece, rather than simply what had been provided by the teacher.

This unexpected encounter with a sculpture garden gave me pause to again consider our previous discussions in Art Times on the question, "What is art?"  I mused also on the equally important "how" and "why" of art.
Ethnomusicologist John Blacking, speaking about the arts in general, has written, “Art does not consist of products, but of the processes by which people make sense of certain kinds of activity and experience."  In this view, the greatest value of art is not in a piece of art itself, but in how we address it — in the process of creation, or in the experience of encountering art and responding to it.  I wondered, for example, at what point in Bailey’s process she breathed such “life” into her creation.

As I left the nature center, I reflected on all of the students’ daring and uninhibited practice of art.  They had accepted the challenge presented to them— to use such unusual materials for sculpting, and to work within a prescribed time frame, knowing that whatever they came up with would be left on the grounds, for all passersby to see, until their work is eventually destroyed by Mother Nature. 

Herein lies a lesson for us adults, who, having found our respective niches, adhere tenaciously to what we do well, and seldom truly stretch ourselves into untried or uncomfortable territory — certainly not for immediate public display or performance.  According to Blacking, the practice of art (not art’s "perfection," or art's "ideal," but its practice) deserves a central place in human life, for it is "part of the process of educating the feelings and the intellect."

So, here's to more practice, more process... and to doing something more creative with one's grass clippings than immediately tossing them into the compost bin.

(Lisa Wersal, a regular contributor to our Speak Out column lives in Vadnais Heights,