Santa Barbara's Art From Scrap Incubates Ideas

Olivia with Rocket Ships.

It's 11a.m. on a Saturday morning, and Santa Barbara buzzes like a giant hive of parent-child activity. Every baseball field and soccer pitch hosts a game, and fantastic numbers of children are streaking across the landscape towards various balls -- thrown, kicked, batted or bounced -- while their parents stand on the sidelines, looking concerned, and relaxed at the same time. But inside Art From Scrap, the 20 year-old non-profit on Cota and Garden Streets in Santa Barbara, the children and young adults are equally as kinetic as their outdoor counterparts. This commotion is the Art From Scrap assemblage workshop, where students are building rocket ships and UFOs out of discarded material. This trash becomes new again as conical paper cups from old-fashioned soda fountains -- perfect for rocket ship nose cones -- and paper plates that, when sandwiched together face to face, materialize as flying saucers. Imagination -- and Elmers glue -- bind together these tossed away items, creating something new from something old. Santa Barbara artist Dan Levin, a lanky, goateed mountain biker with a talent for assemblage, and his assistant for the day, Laguna Blanca School sophomore Olivia McGovern, wrangle the kids, and get their minds burning. And it works. "I'm here every Saturday," proclaims kid artist Siena, and "I am here every Saturday too, man" echoes Hawk, a Rauschenberg-to-be.

Dan Levin and Siena.

Started in 1990 as the reaction to cuts in the arts at the city's schools, a group of Santa Barbara parents started Art From Scrap. It functions as a teaching facility, a gallery, a store for reusable and new surplus art materials, and a community center, rolled into one. Downstairs, the Reuse store overflows with brightly colored and attractively displayed stuff, all of it either donated or recycled. There is paper, tape, tiles and picture frames, every imaginable kind of plastic or cardboard container, and even some industrial remnants, like polyurethane slivers thrown off in the process of creating skateboard wheels. Upstairs, where the rocket ship and UFO-making workshop has landed, does double duty as a workspace and a gallery. The current exhibit showcases a number of artists in a group show called "Local Legends" featuring Tricycle magazine contributing artist Neal Crosbie. He is just one of the more than a dozen accomplished assemblage artists who make Santa Barbara home, a fact that gets a great boost from the existence of AFS. It's their clubhouse, workspace, and school.

In addition to hosting educational events, AFS also travels to the schools. Through the Green Schools program, AFS serves more than 12,000 students and teachers each year with in-class lessons and field trips that focus on waste diversion, water quality, and school gardens. These lessons have an impact. Katie Romanov, a Middlebury College student and Santa Barbara resident, recently won the title of "America's Next Eco-Star," in this program sponsored by SmartPower and the United States Department of Energy to recognize young leaders in sustainability and energy conservation. Romanov recently returned to Santa Barbara from Vermont to see her family and friends before heading off to Washington, D. C. for the summer, where she will be working as a research fellow at SmartPower and helping to market the ideas of clean energy and energy efficiency to young people. Not one to let an opportunity to make a difference slip by, Romanov used part of her time back home to visit her local alma mater, Laguna Blanca School, where she joined Morgan Raith, LBS class of 12 and current Middlebury College student, in conducting a class on keeping homes at a comfortable temperature year round through non-energy consuming means.

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For Raith and Romanov, who leads Middlebury College's "Sprout" program, which educates Vermont children about the environment, working with kids generally means building things -- in this case scale models of energy-efficient green homes and buildings. And when it's time to build stuff, their first stop is Art From Scrap's Reuse store. "I love coming here" Raith says, "because there's so much more than just all this great stuff. What's really useful about the Art From Scrap store is that when I shop here, I don't just pick up things--I also get ideas." Upon returning to Laguna Blanca, laden with materials for the classroom demonstration, Raith was able to translate the time she had spent browsing in the Reuse store into dozens of new ways to build scale models, which demonstrate concepts as building with stone slab floors that retain heat in the winter and remain cool in the summer to kids.

For artist Tara Patrick, who works at AFS and exhibits her paintings at galleries in Santa Barbara, the store is a place to connect with all of the many practitioners of the art of assemblage who call Santa Barbara home. Tony Askew, Dug Uyesaka, Anne Luther, Susan Tibbles, and Rod Lathim are all well established in the field, and regular visitors to the store. AFS director Cay Sanchez is not only an administrator; she too makes vibrant and original assemblage works out of the wild assortment of things that streams through these doors. Sanchez believes that Art From Scrap makes an ideal platform from which to communicate the organization's core values, which are stated in its motto/mission statement: "Everything is connected. Everything ends up somewhere. We have options. We make choices."

AFS has also demonstrated a flair for successful fund raising with its annual One Night Stand event, which will take place this year on Saturday, August 11 at Gallery 27, a professional gallery space in Santa Barbara that is associated with the Brooks Institute. At One Night Stand small works of approximately "9x9" are solicited from hundreds of contemporary artists from all over the country. On the night of the event, all of these works are for sale for the same price: $200. Some are by relative unknowns, and others are by famous artists and are thus worth many times what will be paid for them. The trick is that none of the names will be revealed until after the purchase has been made. This playful tactic raises interesting questions for each piece: Is that a real Yoko Ono drawing, or Jeff Bridges photo, or John Nava painting, or does it just look like one? The surprise is part of what makes this enormously popular event so successful. The crowd at last year's One Night Stand overflowed the gallery space for hours as people stood in a line that went around the block to get a look at the big wall of "9x9" wonder and mystery.

With events like One Night Stand, and gallery shows like the current one, Local Legends, AFS extends its reach beyond the world of assemblage and into the far corners of fine art. It's a way of life. What is trash and what is treasure? How can we build from what we already have? As AFS has it, "we have options, and we make choices."


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Top Image: Olivia with Rocket Ships.

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