Seeking Epiphany: Writing Student Alex Nichols to Complete SF Dump Artist Residency May 20-21
Posted on Monday, May 9, 2011 by Lindsey Westbrook
Technically it's not a dump, it's a transfer station: the 44-acre Recology site where most of San Francisco's garbage and recyclables pass through on their way to either a landfill or a recycling plant. To those who work there, know it, and love it, it's the dump. And for many local artists, including an impressive array of CCA alumni and faculty, it has been the site of a four-month-long scavenger hunt. Recology hosts a one-of-a-kind, intensely competitive residency program where for four months, 40 hours a week, a few lucky artists find inspiration, a literally endless stream of raw materials, a wide array of tools, and 2,000 square feet of studio space, leading up to a culminating exhibition event. The program just celebrated its 20th year. Not all of the artists make work that is specifically about reuse, but no one leaves without having been profoundly affected by the experience, without thinking about life and culture (and trash) in entirely new ways.
On May 20-21 Recology will host the final exhibition of current residents Alex Nichols (soon-to-be alumna from CCA's MFA Program in Writing), Scott Kildall, and Niki Ulehla. That such an obviously object-oriented residency welcomed Nichols, a writer, is an indication of how it continues to evolve and push the envelope of what "art" and "scavenging" mean. Some of the best-known works to come out of the residency have included Nathaniel Stookey's Junkestra (2007), which subsequently performed to a sold-out audience at Herbst Theater in San Francisco and released a recording, and the Styrofoam Hummer made by Andrew Junge (MFA 2002), which has gone on to tour numerous exhibition venues all over the country and has achieved legendary, mythical status among the dump workers.
Since her residency exactly coincided with her thesis semester, Nichols was able to use many of her dump projects to complete her course requirements. The final exhibition on May 20-21 will also serve as her thesis presentation. "I've always thought of my writing practice as being about collecting fragments of language, the small words and phrases that add up to one's daily existence," she says. "At the dump I've been able to very powerfully translate these ideas into the realm of the object. My goal was to truly merge my writing practice and my visual art practice, and I am so excited about how far I've gotten, how much I've been able to accomplish."
Her professors were all entirely enthusiastic, she reports, encouraging her to fully immerse herself in the rich margin where text and object overlap and inform one another. "Tina Takemoto, Lisa Robertson, Denise Newman, and Miranda Mellis: they all meant so much to me as teachers," she enthuses. "They are all such strong women, so radical, powerful, smart. They are constantly pushing boundaries, and operating on this whole other level of engagement with the world and their work." She also waxes poetic about Kota Ezawa, whose Multiplex course encouraged the exploration of the entire range of what sound can be, extending even to embrace objects and text.
At the dump exhibition Nichols plans to show a series of 14 sonnets, 14 complementary mixed-media sculptures, photographs, additional poems, and one or two video installations. She also undertook an oral history project (which she hopes to continue past the formal ending date of the residency), recording the thoughts and words of some of the Recology workers. One security guard in particular was her entree into a social world that might otherwise have been difficult to penetrate in such a short amount of time. He befriended her early on and took an active role in introducing her to other workers. "Many of them have been there for 20 years or more and have developed very moving philosophies about the objects that intersect our lives." Making their rounds at night, security guards have a lot of time for quiet introspection.
Nearly every resident artist experiences some stress, then zen, related to finding materials to carry out their ideas. Notable finds over the years have included some fascinating stuff, from irreplaceable historical documentation -- for instance ship logs from the 1870s (donated to the Maritime Museum) -- to really valuable antiques: old victrolas, 1950s baseball cards, a monkey fur stole, rugs, toys, bottles, vases, furniture. . . . Val Britton (MFA 2006), who did the residency in 2010, remembers, "It wasn't easy not to have familiar materials at hand all the time. My studio practice before the residency was dependent on trusting my intuitive process and creating an environment where I could take risks and allow things to happen organically. This intuitive trust was essential to navigating the residency, where I had to remain open to the possibilities of what I might find, which changed every moment of every day depending on what goods were being dropped off for disposal."
"Objects are points in a process, not static entities," muses Scott Oliver (MFA 2005), a resident in 2007-8. Not a conventional sentiment for a sculptor! "You have to be open to surprises. Of course you can always find paint, or construction materials, but you can't seek anything very specific. For me, the Recology residency was a time of intense productivity. It's set up to encourage you to make a lot of work, which in my experience is different from the expectations of residencies run by nonprofits. I didn't self-edit nearly as much as I usually do, which was freeing, and at the end I found I had still more ideas that I hadn't gotten around to executing."
One of Oliver's projects was featured in the program's 20th anniversary exhibition, held last year at Intersection 5M in San Francisco. It is a collection of scavenged LPs, to be mixed at a social gathering by guest DJs who have no familiarity with the collection. The title: Eighty-sixed Thirty-threes.
"The application process is unusually rigorous, I suspect because they really want the artists to know what they're getting into," Nichols says. "I walked out there on the first day, geared up in my hard hat and yellow vest, and just felt incredibly tiny and overwhelmed! There are days when you simply get melancholy, fatigued, from the endless stream of trash. So many things are still usable -- even still in their packages. Or, even more sadly, photos and letters and other remnants of people's lives that no one cared enough to keep."
Britton reflects, "If it would have been possible to clear all other responsibilities from my life in order to spend 24 hours a day at the dump, I would have done it. Those four months passed far too quickly. I liked the sense of wonder and discovery, the inspiration found in unexpected materials, and the hope that small gestures matter."
Nichols concurs. Despite a more-than-full load this past semester -- she spent her days at the dump, took mostly evening courses at CCA to finish her degree, tackled thesis, and was a mom to her two kids -- she's already wishing for just one more day in the trash heap, one more contemplative afternoon sitting in the CCA Writers' Studio garden. "Although, if I've learned anything in the last two years," she realizes, "it's that I need to keep putting myself out there in new and different ways." There are more projects to undertake, poetry to write, collaborations waiting to happen.
Numerous CCA alumni and faculty have participated in the Recology residency.
Current and former faculty
Ellen Babcock (MFA Sculpture 2002)
Val Britton (MFA Printmaking 2006)
Mike Farruggia (Wood/Furniture 2002)
Greacian Goeke (MFA Film/Video 1990)
David Hevel (MFA Film/Video 2002)
David Hinman (MFA Sculpture 2001)
Donnie Hunt (Painting 1975)
Andrew Junge (MFA Painting/Drawing 2002)
Reddy Lieb (MFA Glass 2004)
Hector Dio Mendoza (Individualized Major 2001)
Scott Oliver (MFA Wood/Furniture 2005, also has been adjunct faculty)
Viviana Paredes (Sculpture 2001)
Linda Raynsford (Graphic Design 1984)
Remi Rubel (MFA Sculpture 1998)
Zachary Royer Scholz (MFA Painting/Drawing 2008, MA Visual and Critical Studies 2009)
Susan Leibovitz Steinman (MFA Sculpture 1989)
Kim Weller (MFA Painting/Drawing 2003)
Banker White (MFA Sculpture 2000)
Norma Weeks Yorba (Individualized Major 1985)
(Samantha Braman contributed significantly to the research for this article)
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