Tampa Museum goes green (sort of)

An exhibition gives art the "green" light

click to enlarge "ROAM," IF YOU WANT TO: Kim Johnson and Nikki Pike's "Gardens in Roam" treats viewers as potential adoptive parents. - Courtesy Of The Artists
Courtesy Of The Artists
"ROAM," IF YOU WANT TO: Kim Johnson and Nikki Pike's "Gardens in Roam" treats viewers as potential adoptive parents.

The same generation that watched in diapers as Kermit the Frog crooned "It's Not Easy Being Green" on national television now faces a different set of growing pains. This time around, being "green" isn't a metaphor for racial difference, being gay or having curly hair — it's about whether to identify with a movement that loftily aims to save the world but sometimes comes off looking a bit frivolous. (Sustainably harvested açai berry energy drink, anyone?)

These days, a lot of talk about being green or going organic centers on the pitfalls of "green noise" — the cacophony of competing claims of eco-friendliness circulating in the marketplace — or "green-washing:" the disingenuous marketing of products as good for the environment, particularly by corporations. Has green jumped the shark, or is this just what it feels like to be post-green? Turns out saving the planet by way of consumerism is anything but easy.

An unusual exhibit at the Tampa Museum of Art aims to spur conversations about the meaning of green — and to suggest ways in which average folks might add a dash of environmentalism to their everyday lives. (For hard-core fans of low-impact living, much of the exhibit will read like Green 101.) The showcase tackles three areas: eco-furniture and products, architectural projects and contemporary art inspired by environmental concerns. As with other recent TMA exhibits, It's Not Easy Being Green demonstrates the refreshingly progressive outlook the museum has adopted while housed in its interim West Tampa location. (Ironically, though, plans for a green roof atop the new TMA building, slated to open downtown next year, have been scrapped for budgetary reasons.)

To curator Elaine Gustafson's surprise, finding local artists and designers whose work embraces and illustrates green ideas wasn't easy. Many pieces in the exhibit — a cheese board made from a recycled glass bottle, bowls crafted from bamboo or buttons, a reusable paper vase — come from online retailers of eco-friendly products; other one-of-a-kind pieces were borrowed from artists and galleries based in New York and California.

But when the contributions are local, they shine. Take "Gardens in Roam," by Nikki Pike, a USF MFA grad, and Kim Johnson, an interactive installation-performance in which museum visitors are rigorously interviewed as potential adoptive parents of newborn plants. (Following the exhibit's opening reception, the performance props remain as a display.) Or Pike's cob house project — a collaboration with Lindsay MacKay shown in model form with a documentary DVD — a structurally sound dwelling made from sand, straw and clay. (I'd take one of these over a FEMA trailer any day.) On the accessory front, a Bay area couple known as Papergeist produces notebooks from old record album covers and recycled paper.

But the pièce de résistance is a handsomely crafted walnut bench by Charles and Amy Haynie of Tampa Street Market. Formerly a retail space adjacent to Cappy's on N. Florida Ave. in Tampa, the business now operates out of the couple's Seminole Heights home, though they hope to open a space in Ybor or South Tampa in the future.

Other Tampa Street Market creations not on view at the museum include desks and tables topped with hot-rolled steel (Tampa city council member Mary Mulhern has one in her office); a cypress-topped bar with metal shelves; a coffee table made from an antique wooden trunk and bookshelves crafted from window shutters. Virtually all of their materials consist of wood and metal rescued from scrap yards and second-hand stores — which, in theory, can be reused many times. The collaborative design-and-build process takes place in the couple's garage studio.

To craft the walnut bench, the Haynies start with a section — i.e., a vertical cut — of old-growth walnut (or cypress, for variation) purchased from a salvage resource within the state. After Charles, a mechanical engineer by day, sands the surface, Amy chips off the rough edges of bark, leaving some of the subtly textured inner bark on one side. An oil finish or coat of natural polyurethane product gives the walnut a slight sheen; then metal legs made from recycled tubing get fitted to the wood. The end product is a gorgeous piece of furniture with a modest carbon footprint. What's more, the bench is more likely to become a family heirloom than anything purchased at Ikea, making its artistic value as green a proposition as the materials.

More than any other piece in the exhibit, the walnut bench serves as a reminder than green isn't just about recycling — it's about a shift in the way we value objects, from a preference for the disposable to treasuring the durable and handcrafted. If that isn't a value intrinsic to fine art and craft, I don't know what is. (Pike's piece, "Gardens," takes this idea to the next level, urging visitors to remember that plants, as living things, are not lightly owned or destroyed.)

In keeping with the spirit of the exhibit, the museum's staff has attempted to apply green principles to their workplace, from switching to ceramic mugs instead of Styrofoam cups to making double-sided copies, at curator Gustafson's behest. The devil is in the details, she says, like turning your coffee break into a trash-free affair by forgoing the plastic stirrer or a paper napkin. Small changes practiced by many people add up to tons (literally) of saved paper and fewer trips to the landfill.

Still, going green is no cakewalk. "It is a lifestyle change, and it requires a commitment," Gustafson admits. "And that is hard."

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