March 12, 2010

Garbage, on a grand scale


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Doug Jones/staff photographer: Sunday, January, 10, 2008:Artist Anna Hepler in her Fore St. studio in Portland.

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Staff Writer

fter you see Anna Hepler's installation at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport, you'll never take your groceries in a plastic bag again.

Hepler, one of Maine's leading professional contemporary visual artists, stitched together strips of shredded plastic in lattice shapes and suspended them from the ceiling and walls of the CMCA's loft gallery. Mostly blue and white, the plastic mass takes the shape of a boat's hull, filling the room so that it's impossible for a grown adult to walk underneath it.

She calls her piece ''Gyre.''

The impetus for the installation came when Hepler began researching something known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a huge area of marine debris in the north Pacific Ocean. The swirling vortex, trapped by the currents of the north Pacific gyre, is characterized by high concentrations of suspended plastics and other debris.

By some estimates, the area contains more than 100 million tons of trash, which is carried by currents from Asia and North America.

Hepler was horrified when she read accounts of the marine dump, which stretches across the ocean for hundreds of miles.

''It's very disturbing, because plastic doesn't ever disappear,'' she said. ''We have this great pile, this unbelievably large pile of plastic, and we have to figure out how to deal with it.''

With ''Gyre,'' Hepler is interested in conveying ''the tenuous feeling of being underneath a massive form floating overhead,'' while also revealing something about the nature of its construction and how individual pieces are part of a larger whole.


Hepler, 39, lives in Portland with her husband, Jon Calame, and their two children, ages 1 and 3. She teaches art at Bowdoin College in Brunswick.

Since moving to Maine in 2001, Hepler has established herself as one of the state's most active visual artists, working in all manner of media and in a great variety of scale. She has shown her drawings, prints, sculpture and other work regularly in numerous solo and group exhibitions across Maine and out of state.

She was part of the 2008 biennial at CMCA, the 2006 DeCordova Annual at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Mass., and the Maine Print Project in 2006, and has shown in galleries and museums from Washington to New York, New Mexico to Michigan.

She also has exhibited overseas, in Tokyo and Seoul.

''Gyre,'' on view through March 21, represents a bit of a departure for Hepler. She is best known for making smallish pieces -- drawings, woodcuts, spheres and other objects. But ''Gyre'' fills almost the entire gallery, measuring somewhere in the neighborhood of 45 feet long and 15 feet wide.

It's not an unprecedented work for Hepler: She filled a Seattle gallery last year with a sprawling installation of stainless steel and aluminum rods and PVC discs. But ''Gyre'' marks the first time she's attempted a project of such ambition in Maine

She and a team of assistants spent eight days constructing the piece prior to the January opening.

After living with the installation for a few days, Hepler detected an unintended continuum between ''Gyre'' and some of her earlier work, particularly her small-scale spheres and other wire constructions. The pieces are linked by their shared concern for space, shape and volume.

In that sense, ''Gyre'' almost feels like one of her spacial drawings, played out on a very large scale.


Hepler decided to work with plastic long before she researched the garbage patch. Plastic is forgiving and translucent, she said, and its flexibility appealed to her.

As a prototype and to begin stockpiling ideas for the installation, she sewed together short strips of plastic to create a piece of lattice. She wanted to see how the material would respond to her manipulation, and she liked the result very much.

Her original idea was to go to a building supply store and buy rolls of plastic, then shred it and stitch it back together in crisscrossing strips. But after learning about the swirling mass of plastic trash in the Pacific, she realized she couldn't buy more plastic that might someday end up in the garbage patch.

Instead, she went to the recycling center on Riverside Street in Portland and began salvaging discarded plastic. It seemed like the only responsible thing to do. ''We have such an excess of this material,'' she lamented.

''Gyre'' doesn't attempt to illustrate the Pacific trash as much as it's meant to give people pause, and encourage them to think about the plastic they discard and where it might end up.

For Hepler, the most disturbing aspect of the concentrated marine debris is its permanence. Plastic does not biodegrade. It photodegrades, and disintegrates into tiny pieces that remain as polymers down to the molecular level. In that state, it remains concentrated in the upper level of the water and is ingested by fish and other aquatic organisms that live near the ocean's surface, and eventually enters our food chain.

The installation of ''Gyre'' was an organic process, Hepler said. She originally envisioned the piece would look vastly different than it does. But as she and her team settled in at the loft gallery, Hepler decided to let the piece evolve.

The final result ''is so not the picture I imagined it would be,'' she said.


Duane Paluska, who shows Hepler's smaller work regularly at his Icon Contemporary Art gallery in Brunswick, admires her ability to activate challenging spaces. He recalls her 2006 installation at the DeCordova in Lincoln, Mass.: Hepler was given a small passageway in which to work, with a wall squeezed by a set of parallel windows. The space was long and narrow, ''where ordinarily the only thing you could imagine showing were tiny drawings or something intimate and small,'' Paluska said.

Instead, Hepler did the opposite. She constructed a deep red fabric sculpture made from thread and tape and suspended it from the ceiling. It forced people to look up and all around, and gave the space a completely different feeling.

Additionally, the piece -- titled ''Fall, Scatter, Float'' -- was clearly visible from the street, enabling viewers to see it from the perspective of the outside world.

That same effect is possible with ''Gyre.'' Hepler lit the piece from within, so the lattice shapes cast shadows on the white gallery walls. And although it's on the upper floor of CMCA, it's visible at night from the street, through the windows.

Diana Tuite, a curatorial fellow at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, appreciates Hepler's ''refreshing sincerity'' to her process and inquiries. ''They are concentric but never redundant,'' Tuite wrote in an e-mail. ''Anna excels at making marks that are both unabashedly personal and rigorously procedural. They are speculative and, at the same time, self-assured -- assured of the value that inheres in the act of making them.

''She demonstrates the utmost fidelity to materials even as she submits to these organic processes. And the open-ended 'we'll see where this takes us' inquiry is not a gimmick, but rather a generous act.''


Britta Konau, CMCA's curator, said ''Gyre'' has proven to be a popular show. More than 280 people attended the opening in early January, and the exhibition has enjoyed steady visitation during what is normally a slow time.

Part of the reason for the steady traffic is because there are three other exhibitions up now at CMCA, including a series of graphite drawings by CMCA Biennial Jurors' Prize winner Melinda Barnes.

But there's little doubt that Hepler is a big draw. She is widely known in Maine and is seen as the kind of artist who is unafraid of challenges, Konau said. People admire her ability to translate her concepts into different media, from drawings and prints to installations.

''She is an inspiration for so many others, and not just students, but other artists as well,'' Konau said. ''I can't tell you how many times I have heard, 'She's my hero.' ''

Hepler isn't sure what she'll do with ''Gyre'' when it comes down. Very likely, she will roll the plastic into a big ball and store it somewhere, in hopes of reinstalling it in some other form somewhere else.

Already, the Rockport project has spawned other ideas involving reuse and regeneration.

Hepler and Bowdoin colleague Andrea Sulzer are collaborating with Bowdoin students on a project at the old Brunswick High School, slated for demolition in the spring. Students are carving the floor in one classroom, and Hepler and Sulver are carving the floor in another.

When finished, they will make woodblock prints of their work, which will be displayed at Space Gallery in Portland.

''I've become fascinated with the idea of using waste before it hits its final death spot,'' Hepler said.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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