Life as Art

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ECO-ARTIST TIM GAUDREAU MELDS THE WORLDS OF ART AND ADVOCACY
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What if you tried to photograph everything you threw away for an entire year? Local green artist and activist Tim Gaudreau did just that. His resulting collage, exhibited as far afield as San Francisco, now resides on an office wall at the Green Alliance, of which Gaudreau is a long-standing member.

A vortex of bottles, plastic film canisters and other random trash, the piece typifies this Portsmouth native’s practice of melding the worlds of art and green advocacy. Gaudreau, who splits his time between his more issue-driven, eco-artistic endeavors and Tim Gaudreau Studios, a commercial photography business, recalls his return to graduate school in 2000, when the immediacy of green issues and politics began steering his artwork in a more activist direction.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in the Southwest, and on a mountain hike in California, I remember thinking about how beautiful it was—the fog in the valley, the light shining across the air creating this beautiful atmosphere,” he says. “When I was walking down the mountain, I ran into someone researching the air quality, and he told me it was smog settling in from L.A., 200 miles away. Then it struck me—the dichotomy of simultaneous beauty and ugliness.”

Gaudreau evoked this epiphany when he undertook his Self-Portrait, As Revealed in Trash in early 2005. That same dichotomy continues to drive the green artist to still
higher levels of creativity and advocacy. Indeed, many of his self-described “performative” art pieces are intended not only to stimulate observers but also to incite and inspire them. For example, Gaudreau created viewers—eye-level frames staked into open hillsides—to show how sprawl could arise. To make his point, he attached to each viewer a transparent sheet imprinted with an image of Wal-Mart or a housing development. Once observers saw how overdevelopment alters the landscape, they would be more apt to consider the consequences of such practices in their own community. Gaudreau’s art is nothing if not interactive and community oriented.

In the summer of 2008, Timberland, the outdoor outfitter, commissioned Gaudreau to construct a creative piece to raise awareness about the importance of recycling. The artist built a giant, three-dimensional plastic boot out of recycled water and soda bottles. Designed to foster recognition of which types of refuse can be recycled, the boot measured 7 feet high, 12 feet long and 5 feet wide. Titled Give Plastic the Boot, it would come to serve as a visual cornerstone for Timberland’s international sales campaign, which was rolling out a new line of boots made partly from recycled plastics. Indeed, it would not be the last time that Gaudreau incorporated recycled materials into a piece of advocacy art: a few months later, he shaped recycled bottles into a large faucet, which he donated to help a Washington, DC-based advocacy group lobby on behalf of international water issues.

While Gaudreau’s “green art” has in the past fueled conversation, lately he has been trying his hand at more functional pieces. Specifically, Gaudreau has taken to producing furniture made entirely of natural materials—wood, dirt and grass. The whole idea started in casual conversation with his wife, Atlanta, when they became interested in researching how to bring a “truly green” couch into their Portsmouth home. After researching organic fabrics and woods, Gaudreau had the idea of making one entirely out of natural materials. He hammered together a basic wooden form, a mold, and then filled the structure with dirt. Once compacted and dried, he removed the wooden form and planted organic turf grass all over it. The result was a couch that was as lush and green as it was heavy (Gaudreau’s estimate is close to a ton). It now occupies a prominent spot in his backyard.

Gaudreau’s green couches—his own and two others that reside in a Newburyport, Massachusetts, pocket park—may be more practical than a plastic boot, but they are nevertheless conversation starters. “What appealed to me was the idea of having a living sculpture. Sure, it would have to be outside, but that presented its own opportunities,” Gaudreau says. “I recognized that modern society didn’t really afford the time to truly enjoy nature, to just go outside and sit on the grass. So the result was a piece that was really inviting and surprisingly comfortable.” The Portsmouth artist says the response from passersby has been overwhelmingly positive. “I actually had one woman come up to me and say, ‘It’s like the earth is hugging me.’ That really struck a chord with me.”

Just as impressive as Gaudreau’s green artwork is his personal commitment to green living. He heats his home and studio with a wood-pellet boiler and passive solar features. Solar photovoltaic panels generate power. As a result, he has not received an electric bill in over six months. Almost all of his appliances are Energy-Star rated, and he and Atlanta drive bio-diesel powered Volkswagens. He tends an organic garden large enough to feed five local families and makes his own flavored seltzer waters in order to eliminate what he describes as a former “four-bottled-drinks-a-day habit.” In his photography business, Gaudreau went digital in 2001, eliminating the chemical-heavy papers, film, and toners that once typified the world of professional photography.

The artist’s community involvement includes giving seminars at schools throughout the region. Last year, he partnered with the Islington Creek Neighborhood Association and EcoMovement Consulting and Hauling to form Zero Waste Portsmouth. This organization is spearheading efforts to place the city’s first public recycling and composting receptacles downtown. Fellow Green Alliance member Middleton Building Supply donated materials for the bins. Pupils at Portsmouth’s middle and high schools
made the bins' decorative ceramic tiles, while students from Robert J. Lister Academy, a high school for at-risk adolescents, created the prototype waste station, which was
 installed in August at Prescott Park. Five more bins should be set out by spring. Gaudreau also hosts Portsmouth Green Drinks, a monthly gathering of eco-friendly community members, who socialize and listen to guest speakers.

Green concerns will stay front and center for this artist, who would like to design interior spaces and features for green buildings and private residences. Gaudreau wants his work to move people beyond visual appreciation to theoretical discussions and eventually to real eco-change.

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