Adopt-a-River: Trash Art from River Cleanup

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Podcasts
Adopt-a-River: Trash Art from River Cleanup .mp3 (3.05 Mb) 08/04/08

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Steve Carroll:

Hi, everyone. I'm Steve Carroll, Information Officer with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and welcome to today's show about our Adopt-a-River program.

Our special guest is Paul Nordell who is with us today in studio. Paul has been coordinating the DNR's Adopt-a-River program in Trails and Waterways since 1991. Since the program was established in 1989, the program has been responsible for removing five million pounds of rubbish from our public waters.

Paul's role has been to be a chief encourager of the volunteer efforts to clean the man made trash from the flood plains including lakes, rivers, ponds, wetlands, ditches, and ravines. To do this encouraging, one of the things Paul has been working with since 1994 has been to commission a sculpture for the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul using a small portion of what has been retrieved at various cleanups. This has brought us some amazing results and Paul is here to talk to us about that today.

Welcome, Paul.

Paul Nordell:

Thank you.

SC:

Well, first of all, where did you come up with the idea of bringing trash to the State Fair in the form of a sculpture?

PN:

Actually one of our volunteer groups approached me with the idea. They said, "if you really want to turn heads at the Minnesota State Fair, why don't you let us bring one of these found object sculptures to the State Fair and we'll explain it to the public and in fact we have some material from one of our cleanups." This one happened to be down in Winona on the Mississippi River. So everything they brought in was a product of their particular cleanup. That was with Mississippi River Revival some years ago.

SC:

What was your greatest concern about the first one you brought into the fair?

PN:

Well, when it first arrived all of my peer groups said, "now, you have to be real careful about this because we're dealing with hundreds of thousands of people and they're going to walk all over this stuff and they're going to fall on it and get injured."

SC:

And?

PN:

Nothing like that at all happened. We put a little fence around it and people were very respectful of that. Thousands of people milling around, but none of them climbed over the sculpture and that's been true for the last 15 years. It's just an amazing study in human behavior.

SC:

And so your greatest fear really never was realized?

PN:

That's right, it did not become another jungle gym.

SC:

Alright, and where can people find this at the State Fair?

PN:

This sculpture, and our exhibit, is located right beyond the fishpond. So you have the DNR building, the fishpond, and the wetland and then the next thing, as you're moving towards Como Ave side of the fair, you have the Adopt-a-River display with a big banner up on top. Can't miss it.

SC:

And it's become kind of a tradition for people who visit the DNR building. They have to kind of see what's going on with the Adopt-a-River program.

PN:

Yes, the people will go through the DNR building and if they look out across the fishpond they can see this unusual object and many of them come to investigate. And other people will come to the fair and they'll say, "why don't we all meet back here at the sculpture in about a couple hours," so it's become a meeting place and there are some benches nearby for that purpose.

SC:

Got it. And why do you think people react to this exhibit with such emotion?

PN:

They look at this piece and right away they look up at the sign that says "Adopt-a-River," and they see this sculpture and intuitively they realize that that material has been taken out of the public waters. In one way they're both amazed and disgusted. Some people will look at it and they'll say, "it's beautiful, no, it's ugly, no, it's beautiful, it's…" they're just torn. It's like sweet/sour sauce. They're just not sure how to react.

SC:

Yeah, and if you've ever seen a sculpture it is a collection of just about anything you can imagine from tires to car doors to baseballs. It's really kind of amazing.

PN:

Yes, the sculpture, and I talk with the artist about this, I said, "it has to appeal both to the farm mechanic and the child." So, there's a mix of things. So, some people go and they say, "I recognize, I can almost give you the serial number for that part," and then another kid says, "I think that's the ball I lost in the river."

SC:

Right. Are people amused by or are people challenged by what they see at the exhibit?

PN:

It's an odd combination of those two. Some people just look at it and chuckle to themselves. Some people have almost an angry look on their eyes. And others are just hopefully motivated to join in this community effort.

SC:

And it's a great education piece for kids and families.

PN:

Yes, it's so interactive. They come and we have things designed to increase that interaction.

SC:

Such as?

PN:

We have a found objects scavenger hunt. So, we give them a sheet and they can go through those items and when they identify that they can circle it and then they go over to our prize tent with more of our exhibition and they can cash in and get their prize. And we have thousands of people that do that each year.

SC:

Right, and you've obviously been out there for a number of years, is there one object that just kind of floors you that they find it in the river? There must be several I guess.

PN:

Items, yeah, that show up in the sculpture. I think probably the strangest thing that's ever been woven into the sculpture is the door from an airplane.

SC:

Really?

PN:

Now, that airplane door, at some point in the process we decided that no one was still looking for it, because it was heavily weathered, it had been in the river for years. But the sculptor saw that and he was drawn to it. And it's currently the wing of one of the sculptures that's on public display still, years later.

SC:

And then what is the goal of the Adopt-a-River sculpture?

PN:

The goal of the sculpture itself is to cause people to intuitively understand what is needed to be done, and that's cleaning out the public waters of all this type of debris for the health of the wildlife and the general public. And ultimately to improve drinking water because that's where much of this public water winds up in one way or another. In the Twin Cities, the Mississippi is a major supplier of drinking water, so you look at that sculpture and you think, "not in my drinking water, where do I sign up?"

SC:

Right, and you mentioned, or we mentioned at the top of the program, that the program has collected in excess of 5 million pounds since the program started in the late 1980s. Are the rivers getting cleaner or are they getting dirtier as a whole?

PN:

As a whole, they're improving. The type of things that you find in a cleanup zone that's been worked on repeatedly, the number of tires is radically reduced, because tires were a real problem in the waters 15 years ago, and now there are very few of those. The large objects are being reduced. The items that are washing off of our streets, they continue, even accumulating in volume. So if there's an area that hasn't been cleaned in a number of years there's going to be an inventory of a couple years of street wash piling up there. Bottles, cans, Styrofoam this, Styrofoam that.

SC:

Why are so many tires in the river?

PN:

Tires were in the river because of a problem we had with disposing of tires back in the 70s and 80s and that problem has been addressed quite well. So, most of the time when you find a tire it's a very old relic, but not always.

SC:

OK, and then, so you go to the State Fair, help us visualize what these objects look like when you see them there on the south end of DNR Park.

PN:

Well, you walk in, you might be coming in off the Como entrance to the State Fair, you're looking over the crowds and there's something sticking up over the crowds. You can see it about a block off, and you get closer and you realize something is kind of out of the ordinary and that turns out to be the sculpture. Some people look at it and say, "ah, there's a collection of various pieces that I recognize from my household," and other people say, "all I can see is the object." It's a very interesting personal response to this thing. Some people see the whole thing, some people pick out little pieces. And for those that can pick out little pieces we hand them a sheet and say, "identify ten items, win a prize."

SC:

Wow. And give us an idea of some of the different - I suppose they would be sculptures - the different objects that artists created out there.

PN:

Some of the most compelling sculptures over the years are those sculptures that are some kind of a water related creature, especially the ones that have eyes that can look down at the viewer almost in an accusing way saying, "why did you dump this in the river?" And of course the fact is a lot of that stuff gets in the river through all sorts of methods. Sometimes it's through negligence, sometimes it's the river and it's own mischief. The river will undercut the bank and clean out things from junkyards that go back many years. Sometimes it's carelessness and who knows where that airplane door came from.

SC:

Right, and I think I recall one of the sculptures had like garbage can covers as the eyes or something along those lines. I mean it's amazing the way these artists come up with ways to use the garbage that they find in the rivers.

PN:

Yeah, that's one of the more exciting things about commissioning these things is to watch the mind of yet another artists look at objects – we take them along on the river cleanups – and then they in their own mind start putting this together. It's a process. They work throughout the summer and come up with these ideas and what we see at the fair is a synthesis of all their thinking and it's a fascinating thing to watch.

SC:

And tell us a little bit about how the artists are selected to work on these projects.

PN:

Those artists are selected in a variety of ways, but they usually will approach me at some point or I will approach them through referrals. A lot of the artists are found through referrals through art schools and other artists and then we'll begin a conversation and sometimes that conversation develops into a mature conversation of what to do at the next State Fair. And one of those is selected each year and sometimes the artist will come back for a second year.

SC:

Do they have to be a special type of artist or what are the requirements?

PN:

The artists are required to have a vivid imagination and a willingness to work with materials found only out of our river cleanups except for the structural members that hold it together for safety reasons, because we don't want the sculpture to tip over on anyone at the fair. So they can use fresh metal or something to keep the thing safe and secure. But beyond that it has to be all materials from the cleanups, either metallic or plastic or some kind of materials that are coming right out of the cleanup. And that gives it authenticity and it gives that incredible emotional power when people see that and they know where it's coming from year after year.

SC:

And why would an artist get involved in a project like this?

PN:

For many of the artists this is one of their first public exhibitions. It's a real opportunity, especially for new artists coming out of their formal training or wherever they've gotten their training. It's an incredible opportunity and seldom does an artist get a chance to display in front of that many people in 12 days.

SC:

Right, and then is there compensation involved?

PN:

The artist is compensated. They're commissioned through my program and then after the fair the artist finds display space. So the art, the sculpture itself, is an exhibition contract at the State Fair and then they locate these sculptures in the community afterwards. I work with the artists on locating them and there's been some very interesting locations of about half a dozen sculptures in the Twin Cities metro area.

SC:

What do some of these past sculptures look like?

PN:

There's one on University Avenue right now that looks like kind of a prehistoric loon with red eyes. Another was a massive turtle. That one's on display at Bethel University. There's a giant frog from last year that wound up at the Tamarack Nature Center in Lino Lakes. The dragonfly – that's down at a nature center on the Cannon River. So they wind up in all sorts of interesting places. We even have one at the Mall of America.

SC:

Oh, really? Where about, do you know?

PN:

It's at the Underwater Adventure, right at the base of the escalator. That was our third year.

SC:

OK, and I think you've mentioned in the past it's always kind of an adventure getting the sculpture to the State Fair and getting it set up.

PN:

That's one word for it, yes. You just never know what's going to happen once that thing finds its way to the fair and it's always a nail biter to see if it's low enough to get under the object that might be hanging down trying to take a swipe at the sculpture as it comes in. So there's a little nail biting involved there and some tape measures.

SC:

I would gather. And so the sculpture is set up at the State Fair, about how many visitors do you get and are more and more people stopping by the exhibit do you think?

PN:

With that little scavenger hunt we can have as many as 20 people at one time working that scavenger hunt. So we can have a small crowd gathering around that sculpture and that crowd can continue for much of the day. And it depends upon what else is going on at the State Fair. Sometimes, often times, it's standing room only around that sculpture. Tremendous – thousands of people going by there and interacting. So it's a wonderful outreach for our program.

SC:

And I would imagine it's a great place to watch people too because there are so many different emotions that are going through.

PN:

Yes, yes – for anyone that's trying to capture expressions on people's faces, that's one of the most intriguing things, if you've got a camera, to capture people's expressions as they first lay eyes on it.

SC:

Right, and kid's reactions to finding household items, doors and garbage cans, they can't believe it I would guess.

PN:

Yes, it's such an assortment. Virtually every aspect of our society finds its way down to the river at some point. And as much as possible I've asked the artist to weave in that material, because you find it all in the river. And when you think about it, the river cleanup is really a study in what our culture looks like from the water's edge. And it's an amazing and unusual story. It's like archaeology.

SC:

Right. Do you feel it's been an effective teaching tool?

PN:

People make reference to it throughout the year. In fact, I heard someone just the other day said, "my young children come to the fair just to see what's going on with that sculpture." That's the purpose for their coming to the fair. Now that's kind of humbling to hear that, but you hear people talking about it in all different kinds of contexts throughout the year. When the subject comes up of found object sculpture, right away they think of that particular piece. So it's developing kind a following all of its own. I think it's helping mature the whole idea of found objects art, because after all artists are typically not wealthy. They're not always working with marble or casting in metal, but here you find the items that have already been rejected by society in some fashion and putting it into a sculpture, something of value, and having people come and get an environmental message out of it. So it's exciting for an artist to see that their work is not only having an artistic contribution, but a social environmental contribution. And that's very motivating for the artist.

SC:

And that has to be gratifying for you and the other people that have worked so hard in this program to see it all come together.

PN:

Oh, yes, very interesting. And we do keep track at the fair. We have a notebook for people to sign in their comments and that is a fascinating thing. We always get over a hundred comments. People are writing just their impressions as they see this thing and the impressions they really cover the gamut of reactions.

SC:

Is there, besides the sculpture itself, are there staff members available from the Adopt-a-River program that can answer questions?

PN:

Yes, we have a full staffing. We have two shifts during the day. So we have two shifts per day throughout the fair and we have anywhere from two to four people on each of those shifts. So they're interacting with people, answering the basic questions, and they are referring people to our website and showing people where they can get further involved, especially with upcoming cleanups.

SC:

Right, and what would be some of the basic questions that you hear all the time at the State Fair?

PN:

Well, basic questions that we hear most often are, "where's this, where's that? Where's the birthing barn? Where's the giant pig?" That sort of thing. But the basic questions about the program have to do with, "what can I do to get involved?" And they don't always get back to us, but we're hoping to build a culture where people are just automatically thinking about this. And we do watch to see what the behavior is just around the vicinity of our sculpture and we're looking for behavior change. And we have seen dramatic behavior change over the 15 years. Society responds differently when they walk into a place like the State Fair. Now, we can't claim credit for all of that, but we're starting to see a shift in just the way people assemble in large crowds. When I was a child going to a place like the State Fair, you'd expect to shuffle through a bunch of debris on the ground. That is not the case any more. And that's been a societal shift and I'd say it's a shift across most the nation and we've just been a participant in that. You know, we can't claim credit for all of this, but every little piece helps.

SC:

And if people want to learn more about the Adopt-a-River program, either about the found objects sculpture or get involved in river cleanups, where should they turn to?

PN:

They can go to our website at www.mndnr.gov/adoptariver.

SC:

OK.

PN:

And that's a good place to go and it's also within the Trails and Waterways section of the website that talks about all of the other services within this particular division of the Department of Natural Resources. And we are the division that provides dispersed recreation on trails and waterways throughout the state. So the Adopt-a-River is a strategic component of that stewardship of those resources. We get the people out there and this is the stewardship expectation when they're out there.

SC:

And then with the 2008 State Fair coming up pretty soon, any inside scoop on what this year's sculpture's going to be about?

PN:

As has been in the past, it will be a highly unusual thing, unlike anything we've seen before. And I'm always amazed to see what artists show up. This particular artist is unique among all the artists that we've had, and his concept is unique, and his set of skills is unique. And I can't wait to see what he's going to produce. It's up to the artist in discussion with our program as to what he designs, but to a great extent it's a mystery to all of us including the artist until that things rolls out of the studio and heads to the fair. Can't wait to see it this year.

SC:

That should be exciting. Well, that's about all the time we have for today. I want to thank our guest, Paul Nordell, Coordinator of the Adopt-a-River program, for joining us. And thank you for listening. I'm Steve Carroll for the Minnesota DNR.