Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - February 3, 2012

It's in the bag

Environmental artist finds her inspiration in 'wonderful horrible' plastic

by Rebecca Wallace

In the latest work of outdoor art presented by the Palo Alto Art Center, orbs the size of car tires are scattered across a lawn. They're composed of strips of plastic wound round and round, creating a carnival of colors against the winter-faded grass.

"Lawn Bowls," by Marin artist Judith Selby Lang, is set to be up for the next year on Embarcadero Road, persevering through sun and showers. With some clear sealant, and stakes keeping them in the ground, the balls will be resilient, Lang predicts.

That's the problem. As a longtime environmental artist, Lang has chosen plastic bags and other plastic packaging as her medium for "Lawn Bowls." They're flexible and durable, creating what she calls "the wonderful horrible" nature of plastic: It lasts. That's fine for eyeglasses, but not so much for a single-use grocery sack.

Palo Alto has been sounding the drumbeat against plastic bags for years. In 2009, the city banned the use of non-reusable plastic bags in supermarkets.

"But people are worn out with the negative environmental message," Lang said. With her art installation, she instead aims to be "playful and lighthearted."

The piece is also very much about community participation, which is what the Palo Alto Art Center is looking for in its public art, director Karen Kienzle said. Starting last fall, residents attended free public workshops to help create "Lawn Bowls." Children, seniors, lawn bowlers, city staffers and others helped Lang cut up the plastic into strips, tie the strips together and roll them into balls. Some said the workshops felt like friendly quilting bees or sewing circles.

"It's actually super-meditative," Kienzle said of the work. "I found that you got into a flow with it."

People often chose words or pictures to cut out of the bags. The resulting lawn balls are rather verbose: "Forever 21," "the joy of everyday," "for people who love bikes," "Nature Valley" and many other words adorn them. The balls are anchored firmly in the ground, but their exteriors are soft, almost squishy.

In keeping with the community theme, "Lawn Bowls" opens with a free opening celebration this Saturday from 2 to 4 p.m. The installation is next to the Palo Alto Lawn Bowls Club's green, and the party will include family art activities, an artist's talk and lawn bowling.

Because residents helped create the art, organizers hope they'll feel a connection to it. It's the opposite of so-called "plop art" — a public-art piece that officials just plop in place and hope residents will like, Kienzle said.

Overall, Lang estimates that "Lawn Bowls" contains about 10,000 plastic bags and wrappers. Once Lang thought up the project, she found herself noticing material for it everywhere: not just in supermarket bags, but in paper-towel wrappers, restaurant takeout bags, fruit packaging.

"I've become quite a connoisseur of plastic bags," she said.

Lang also gained an appreciation for the sport of lawn bowling, with Palo Alto's faithful practitioners just on the other side of the fence from her project. As a tribute, she made one of her "Lawn Bowls" white to represent the "jack," the smaller ball that players roll bigger asymmetric orbs toward. Her piece can be seen as an enlarged version of the game.

As Lang stands by her artwork and a lawn bowler gives her a friendly wave, an observer might also remark upon the globes around her neck. The necklace is an example of her great passion for beachcombing. She and her husband, Richard, have been collecting plastic debris from Kehoe Beach in West Marin regularly since 1999.

The two pick up toys, combs, cheese spreaders and other items that wash ashore, then sort them by color and kind. The plastic assortments become sculptures, jewelry and the subjects of photo tableaux.

Currently, Lang is wearing a necklace fashioned from bouncy balls that washed up on the sand. Some have crumbly patinas, while others are in quite good shape for having been at sea. Plastic takes a licking. Around Lang's wrist is a bracelet of white milk-jug lids. There's no elastic added; the artist has simply daisy-chained the small lids together.

Along with her beach-themed works, Lang is also planning another project in Palo Alto. "Waterlily" will be installed in April out at the Baylands watershed area. It's envisioned as a shimmery, mirrory floating network of empty single-use plastic water bottles attached to a mesh of netting. A round mirror will crown each cap; hence the shimmer.

The community will also be involved in the creation of this project; public workshops are being planned for February and March at which attendees will help prepare the bottles for use.

Lang's Palo Alto installations are paid for with city and private funding, Kienzle said. The Palo Alto Art Center Foundation raises private donations (which, for "Lawn Bowls," included many plastic bags) to cover the artist's fee, and the city gives staff time to organize the projects.

As staff members work on "Waterlily," they also look ahead to October, when the Palo Alto Art Center is expected to reopen after its $7.9 million renovation. "The project is on schedule and on budget, which we're really excited about," Kienzle said.

The work includes revamped exhibit spaces, a new gallery shop and a children's wing.

Kienzle added that she hopes the center will find a new curator to replace Signe Mayfield, who retired last year. "There's some budget challenges ... (but) we hope to hire someone," she said.

Meanwhile, another major Palo Alto outdoor art project, Patrick Dougherty's "Double Take" sculpture willow trees, is still holding steady in front of the art center, where it's been since January 2011.

The whimsical sculpture did sprout a bit when it rained, and city staff emailed Dougherty to ask what to do, Kienzle said. He didn't sound too concerned.

"He said that it might diminish the form, so we might do a little pruning, but the piece is holding up beautifully," she said. "Our hope is that we can keep it up until the art center reopens."

Info: The free opening celebration for "Lawn Bowls" is set for Feb. 4 from 2 to 4 p.m. at 474 Embarcadero Road. For more about this event and the to-be-announced public workshops for "WaterLily," go to http://cityofpaloalto.org/artcenter or call 650-329-2366.

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