CCA Faculty and Alumni Green Up the Building Industry (and the Artist's Studio)

Barbara Holmes, "feed/rest/nest" (2013)

The work discussed in this story is on view in the exhibition By-Product Becomes Product at Intersection for the Arts (925 Mission Street, San Francisco) through March 30, 2013. There is an artists' talk on Saturday, March 23, at 1 p.m. (free and open to the public).

We all know that formaldehyde is toxic, but you may not know that it's an essential component of the glues that bind together such commonly used construction materials as plywood and particle board.

And unlike asbestos, which becomes inhalable and therefore harmful only when disturbed, these composite wood panels actually off-gas formaldehyde all the time.

The artist Christine Lee, who has been a lecturer at CCA for the past several years, was concerned about the effects of formaldehyde gas -- not only on people dwelling in structures made of these materials, but also on the artists who use them, possibly without even knowing they are exposing themselves to harm.

She approached John F. Hunt, a research engineer at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin, with the idea of collaborating on the invention of a new kind of composite board made from sawdust and recycled paper pulp fibers that would contain no adhesives or toxic compounds.

Using various forming processes, they succeeded in producing a prototype. The new boards exhibit properties similar to industry-standard composite boards, and because they contain no toxins, they are fully biodegradable and recyclable.

But how would the material perform in the hands of artists who use wood in their work?

To Lee, this question was just as important as the material's potential to transform the building industry. She enlisted five artist friends, all of whom happen to be CCA faculty or alumni, to test-drive it.

The resulting works by Russell Baldon, Julia Goodman, Barbara Holmes, Scott Oliver, Imin Yeh, and Lee herself, are on view in the exhibition By-Product Becomes Product at Intersection for the Arts (925 Mission Street, San Francisco, in the former Chronicle Building) through March 30, 2013. There is an artists' talk on Saturday, March 23, at 1 p.m. (free and open to the public).

Russell Baldon

Russell Baldon (Furniture faculty and Wood/Furniture 1992 alum) decided to create a large series of new works that combine woodworking, a mode native to him since his earliest days in his family's wooden toy business, and drawing, a medium he frequently engages in but has never exhibited before. His Mutant Boxes (2013) are three-dimensional, stacked exquisite corpses whose heads, torsos, and legs can be infinitely recombined by creative visitors.

When he first got the assignment he got to thinking, he says, "about how this material transformed itself from a pile of industrial waste to possibly one of the greenest building materials ever.

This led me to consider my own transformation from toymaker to art student to designer to teacher to parent to whatever other hat I decide to wear on any given day or hour. This identity flux is the foundation of the exquisite corpse boxes.

The outward perception of who we are versus how we think of ourselves has always been an interesting area of artistic exploration for me."

Julia Goodman

Julia Goodman (MFA 2009) works in the medium of paper pulp, and she had gotten into making casts for the pulp by carving deep trenches into MDF. Eventually, she says, "My brother, a mechanical engineer with a focus on sustainable design, connected the materials in my studio to the materials in the FEMA trailers." (Many residents of the FEMA trailers in post-Katrina New Orleans fell victim to formaldehyde poisoning because the trailers had been built out of these materials.)

"He urged me to switch to formaldehyde‐free MDF, but this substitute is not as readily available, and, unfortunately, filled with other additives."

This, then, was her first opportunity to work with a toxin-free alternative that exhibited all the qualities she wanted in a composite board. She treated the project as an opportunity to remind viewers of the unfortunate FEMA trailer residents, who she worries have already been mostly forgotten. The works are FEMA 3 Step, Forgive and Forget, and Oversight (all 2013).

Barbara Holmes

Barbara Holmes (Furniture faculty) works all the time with reclaimed and recycled construction materials, making her a natural choice for this project. She took an approach equally informed by her philosophy of reuse, a sense of beauty and play, and a fundamentally practical streak. The outcome: environmentally friendly birdhouses.

"The presence of birds," she observes, "is often associated with healthy environments. One way we can assist in the dwindling habitat for birds in our urban areas is by providing them with temporary shelter from the cold, and hospitable spaces to feed and nest in our yards and gardens.

We wouldn't consider using composites containing toxins for building a birdhouse, yet many of us continue to use and live with harmful composites in our own homes and workplaces."

She describes the birdhouses, titled feed/rest/nest (2013), as "an architectural blend of birdhouse, garden shed, and postwar ranch-style home" -- in other words, microcosms of our own dwellings.

The exteriors are painted (in a color palette drawn from her own neighborhood) and sealed for weather protection with nontoxic, biodegradable finishes.

After the exhibition, she will give them to friends to install in their yards for the upcoming nesting season, and will continue to track their use and durability.

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Scott Oliver

Scott Oliver (Graphic Design 1994, MFA 2005) also works with repurposed materials, and like Holmes he took a conceptual approach that led to the production of an entirely practical object: a camper shell for his pickup truck.

His thought process began with the recognition that no matter how "green" this new material might be, it is still deeply entangled in an infrastructure that is decidedly not-green.

He recounts: "The boards had to be trucked from Wisconsin to San Francisco, then to Fort Bragg, where I live. And I had to get the piece I made back to the city. I wanted my project to reflect all this. I decided to make a camper shell for my Toyota pick‐up. I recycled the crate materials into the structural frame and clad that in the new boards.

"Besides being a nice inversion of the crate and its contents, for me it's metaphoric of the relationship between the novel material and established infrastructure, which despite its stubbornness must ultimately give way to a new reality."

He titled his work Tree, Crate, Camper Shell, or, On the Way to Becoming Something Else (2013) and the presentation in the exhibition includes not only the camper shell itself, but also process shots of it on the road from Fort Bragg to San Francisco and -- a nice touch -- a crate of extra scraps that visitors are invited to take away.

Imin Yeh

Imin Yeh (MFA 2009) often works in the medium of woodblock printing, and has frequently been struck by the disconnect between the elemental simplicity of this ancient technique and the fact that most contemporary woodblock artists use plywood, linoleum, and other nonnatural materials, since they are easier to carve into.

Lee's new boards appealed to her as offering the best of both worlds: They are less dense than solid wood and lack a grain, yet are made of nothing but wood.

For the exhibition she made an old-fashioned-style display case for (paper) fruits and vegetables. The sculpture is called Double Happiness (2013), and it offers "delicious hand-printed, hand‐built, local, organic, fresh, fine art, limited-edition paper fruits.

This produce, this project, also engages in a critical dialogue with anxieties about nonorganic, nonlocal produce, and the role of the migrant workers who provide a majority of farming workforce in California."