When the large elevator doors slide open students, teachers and artists are launched into the L-shaped gallery space at Materials for the Arts. The showroom acts as inspiration for these individuals on their way to their free shopping spree.
“Wow,” could be heard echoing through the hall last Friday morning as students from the Bronx pointed up at Beth Garrett’s sculptures.
“My daughter is artistic, but I’m not really. I want to come back here with her as motivation,” a teacher with the class said as she pointed to Garrett’s sculptures, all made of plastic bags. “I’m amazed.”
Materials for the Arts, a municipal donation program operated by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs with support from the City’s Department of Sanitation and Department of Education, accepts goods such as spools of yarn, wine corks and crayons, which may have otherwise made their way to the landfill, but instead are available for free to artists who are connected to a nonprofit, and educators. Nat Shelness, education center coordinator at MFTA, said the available items are nontraditional in the art world, so they try to fill their warehouse and gallery with examples of what can be created with the supplies.
In the warehouse someone has put together a display of little animals made of coffee sleeves, and in the gallery Garrett, who lives with her husband and three daughters in Long Island City, displayed two years of sculptures made out of plastic bags.
“It’s one of our most effective shows, because everyone has a relationship to the material,” Shelness said of the exhibition, “Carried Away.” He added that many of the school groups come in carrying their lunches in plastic bags and immediately have a connection to the display.
Garrett studied painting at Rhode Island School of Design and went on to paint as well as design shoes for about 15 years, but she always wanted to dabble in the world of sculpture.
“I don’t know how to weld and it’s difficult to get large tree trunks in New York City,” Garrett said. “I felt limited.”
Then one night she was inspired by a show at the Chocolate Factory in LIC where musicians were performing using cans, bottles and other found objects.
Her imagination was piqued.
She started with Buddha heads — female Buddha heads. Instead of studying pictures of the enlightened figure she went off what she remembers — curly hair, buns and long earlobes, which she interpreted as earrings. Her ladies are definitely dressed to impress with big, cherry-red lips, yellow bows and bright blue hoop earrings. However, even with all the bling, a visitor from the Rubin Museum, which specializes in Himalayan art, said the pieces are iconographically correct, Shelness said.
Garrett then moved on to create headless bodies — nude except for a skirt. The white skirts have been meticulously hot-glued together and trimmed with a pair of scissors to flow and ripple. (For MFTA she created bras, capes and shirts to cover up for modesty.) One of the figures sports the yellow “Have a Nice Day” smiley face seen on many takeout bags on its bicep like a tattoo.
Her next phase of plastic sculpting came when she took up temporary residency at MFTA. The warehouse welcomes a couple of artists a year into its space to create works using their ample supplies. Not needing to transport the works after completion pushed Garrett to experiment with large sculptures.
She created a giant pregnant green figure with a yellow bikini — for modesty. The headless lady reaches an impressive height of about 9 feet. Garrett also revisited her fascination with Buddhas, but instead of 2-foot tall sculptures, the new head she created is skinny and about 5 feet tall.
In the future Garrett plans to make her pieces a little looser. The bags in these sculptures are carefully placed and smoothed, but in the works to come she hopes to scrunch a bag and let it lie — “be a little less fussy,” she said.
When: Open to the public on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Where: Materials for the Arts, 33-00 Northern Blvd., third floor, LIC
Tickets: Free, mfta.org, (718) 729-3001