In the right-hand corner of the Astoria Visual Arts gallery, out of an arrangement of abandoned Styrofoam and a jumble of microplastic, tiny green plants grow. They’re surrounded by trash — thick metal rods weave among them, a massive, rotting fishing net hangs from above, a plastic, flesh-colored hand protrudes from below.
But still, they grow.
This assortment of trash and life is artist Jessica Schleif’s “Hope Garden.”
“We are part of nature, and to be able to see nature forging through the cement, the tarmac, the places that we make that are devoid of nature, it gives me hopefulness,” she said. “I wanted to create a small garden within the gallery that spoke to that feeling of hope that I saw.”
Schleif is one of the three artists behind “Fugitive,” a gallery show. The creative process brought Schleif, Dawn Stetzel and Jesse Jones together, and resulted in an art display made entirely of recycled trash found in the natural world.
“I invited them in with the word ‘fugitive,’” Schleif said. “Plastics have a fugitive quality … able to leach into us, leach into water, break down, change.”
That word sparked inspiration for the artists, who joined to create a three-part show in which none of the materials — not even the rusty screws holding the artwork together or the wooden table displaying their business cards — were purchased.
“We each had our own process,” Schleif said, “and we had a community process between the three of us.”
The show will be on display until Sunday.
Across from the blooming hope garden, in the middle of the room, sits a large, unwieldy sculpture. Comprised of sun-bleached Styrofoam, held together with white straps and fastened to an orange frame, it’s a massive, wearable backpack. Beside it lies an even larger object: a faded white-and-blue kayak with a catapult contraption mounted on its deck, both created by Stetzel.
“There’s definitely a thread between both of these pieces,” she said “They’re big and they’re awkward and I struggle with them.”
Both pieces speak to major focus points in her life, she said. The kayak specifically addresses her fixation on communication.
“One of the cares I have currently,” Stetzel said, “is the frustration with wanting to communicate across divides, across borders, through boundaries. That’s what this contraption is. It’s this odd, ridiculous, potentially ill-fitting contraption that would hopefully launch communication.”
Behind the kayak, a grid-like display of single-use plastic trays hang from the wall. Beach ball sized sea urchins made of buoys and hundreds of plastic pipettes are on display nearby, propped up on old tomato cages from a local garden.
The display was created by Jones, who volunteers with the Surfrider Foundation. For years, she has worked with high school science students to collect and sample water from local waterways. For every test site, the teams use two plastic bottles, a plastic pipette and a plastic sample tray. All the materials can only be used once before they’re thrown away.
“We test multiple times a month,” Jones said. “You can imagine how much trash that was making.”
She couldn’t bring herself to throw so much plastic away. Instead, she saved everything, and now they comprise her first installation project. The collection process also led to new funding. The Surfrider Foundation recently received a grant to replace plastic with glass equipment for testing in Seaside labs, according to Jones.
“They’re single use — you’re supposed to throw them away,” Stetzel said of the old science materials, “but she decided she wasn’t going to, and then change happened as a result.”
All three of the artists are happy to see changes being made.
“Wherever humans and nature meets, there’s stuff — there’s residue, there’s trash,” Stetzel said. “Yes, this is specific to this area, but a lot of what we’re finding is marine debris that you can find in any industrial waterway. So unfortunately, I would say it is connected to other places too.”
At the same time, there’s a regional feel to the display.
“These things could be other places,” said Schleif, “but I feel like the Columbia is kind of rolling through the pieces.”