From litter to glitter
Trash retrieved from in and around Bidwell Park will return there as an artful reminder
Local artist Erin Wade signed up for a recent community cleanup as an opportunity to gather trash for a new project. What she didn’t know at the time was exactly how much the event would reinforce the importance of mixing conservation with art.
“It’s hard for me to see not using reclaimed materials at this point,” said Wade, who has used household garbage in previous works.
Armed with a small grant from the city of Chico and permission from the Parks Commission to create a temporary, site-specific, outdoor sculptural installation in Bidwell Park made out of litter, Wade collected about 50-or-so pounds of trash from the Hooker Oak area during the Butte Environmental Council’s fall cleanup last month. Her finds will complement other rubbish she has been collecting to incorporate into her upcoming “Fruits of Refuse” show in the park’s One-Mile Recreation Area starting Saturday (Oct. 18).
Wade spoke about her upcoming show while busy at The 46—the Nord Avenue studio she shares with well-known local painter Dylan Tellesen—weaving strips of old bedspreads, clothing and blankets, grocery bags and yellow caution tape in and out of the 17 large mushroom-shaped wire frames she fashioned for the show out of salvaged fencing.
“I thought about litter being on the ground,” the 37-year-old Wade explained of how she came up with the concept for her installation. “I wondered, ‘What would grow out of this?’ and came up with the mushroom shape. Mushrooms heal the soil.”
Wade was among hundreds of community volunteers who took part in the annual cleanup, removing an eye-popping 10-1/2 tons of refuse in less than five hours from Bidwell Park and the shores of Lindo Channel and Big Chico, Little Chico, Sycamore and Comanche creeks.
BEC’s cleanup, like the many other inland-city waterway cleanups that also took place on Sept. 20, was held in conjunction with the 24th annual California Coastal Cleanup Day, making for a combined event, which brought out tens of thousands of volunteers this year to scour California’s beaches, bays, lakes, rivers and creeks.
Local efforts didn’t net anything quite as exotic as the 52-pound bag of dog hair that one San Luis Obispo volunteer found, or the purse inhabited by a whole family of crawdads picked up in San Joaquin County, but the cleanup did result in several odd finds. BEC volunteers picked up a car bumper and a blue metal newspaper box with the front window smashed out, for example, along with piles of abandoned lumber, tires and tile, sets of box springs, rolls of carpet, a washing machine, chairs, couches, paints and solvents, along with plenty of littered newspaper, cardboard, aluminum cans, bottles, blankets, paper bags, to-go cups and random pieces of scrap metal.
Volunteers brought the trash to four collection sites manned by volunteer site leaders who picked through each bag, sorting garbage into recyclables, hazardous materials, scrap metal and landfill-bound waste.
BEC, a 33-year-old environmental nonprofit, has been coordinating cleanups since 1983, funded in earlier days by a grant from the city of Chico. Since 1998, the organization has had to compete with others for the now-contracted job. Still, the organization has managed to hold the fall cleanup every year.
Butte County Public Works gives BEC a grant of sorts—waiving the dump fee for the truckloads of trash taken to the Neal Road landfill—and this year, the Butte County Fish and Game Commission aided the cleanup by supplying additional funding, which paid mostly for advertising and for food for volunteers.
Mary Muchowski, BEC’s education and outreach coordinator, recalled having a fall and spring cleanup in previous years, and noted the vast amounts of refuse that piled up by fall.
“After the full summer of everyone out there playing, there’s always a lot of trash to pick up in September,” said Muchowski, who was a site leader. “The Sycamore area [near the entrance to Upper Bidwell Park] gets tons of dumping. People just drive out there and dump things. There are always a lot of tires there. … Our garbage could end up in the ocean if we didn’t clean it up.”
Muchowski emphasized that the success of the cleanup depends on the number of volunteers.
This year, a record 236 people showed up —including BEC members, families with children, Chico State student groups, city personnel and employees from Lifescapes Landscape Development & Maintenance Co., who brought along a fleet of much-welcomed trucks and trailers for hauling off piles of junk—to beat the previous record of 200 people set 10 years ago.
Back at The 46, Wade has been busy on her project, including a mushroom featuring a bird’s-nest-like centerpiece of an old moss-covered shoe punctuated with foxtails, one of her favorite finds. Leaves and other organic materials added to her sculptures will help blend them into their park surroundings. When completed, the mushrooms will “grow” out of the soil in the wooded area between Sycamore Field and Sycamore Pool at One-Mile.
“But it’s not really about the litter so much,” said Wade, who was working alongside two other local artists, Robin Indar and Janice Porter, whom she hired as assistants with some of the money from her city grant. “Litter is ugly, it’s unfortunate. It’s the fact that we have this waste. Consumerism is part of the problem [in creating so much waste]. The BEC cleanup is great because it allows you to see all the garbage in one place.”
Wade, an experienced photographer and painter who earned her bachelor’s degree in art and women’s studies from New York’s Hunter College, counts British environmentalist/sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, famous for his spectacular, outdoor, site-specific installations made of natural materials, among her influences. She says her current project is intended to raise questions about the nature of beauty and how one goes about creating art in times of decreasing resources and other global problems.
“If there is a major change in the way we live due to the state of the economy, or war, or global warming, how will artists make art? What materials will I use to make art after the apocalypse?” asked Wade, only slightly jokingly. “I don’t want to buy materials [anymore] of any kind. … It just makes sense to work with what you’ve got.”