2008-04-25 / Community
Earth Day exhibit turning heads at Town Center
The eco-chic piece that's been catching shoppers' eyes consists of 836 plastic water bottles suspended from the branches of a California live oak.
Michael Pearce, chair of the art department at California Lutheran University, created the work with the help of four art students as part of the mall's Earth Day celebration last Saturday.
But 836 is not a random figure- it's the number of bottles of water an average household uses each year.
And many of those bottles end up in landfills where they can take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade, according to the Waste Management Inc. website.
"The installation is supposed to cause a conversation and make you talk about recycling, but more about reusing and reducing," she said.
Mandy Creamer was shopping for prom with her friend Brittany Reynolds, both of Thousand Oaks, when the bottle-filled tree caught their attention.
"That's a lot of water bottles per house when you can just go to the sink and fill up," said Creamer, 17.
Reynolds, who said recycling is mandatory at her house, was also surprised at the number.
"I didn't think we used that many," she said.
Other passers-by, like Simi resident Desirae Webb, 20, thought the household average was underestimated.
"I think my family uses more," Webb said. "It makes you think."
Webb's boyfriend, Christopher Dean, 22, also from Simi, agreed.
"It kind of puts it all in perspective, the human footprint," he said.
For Pearce, the work is literally a vision that's become reality, since he had a dream a couple of years ago about hundreds of bottles hanging from a tree.
"It was a striking dream because I drew it, I wrote it down," he recalled.
Pearce titled the work "The Alchemy Tree," a fitting description as the ubiquitous water bottle is more than a creative medium- it's an ecological statement.
"You're taking junk and turning it into gold," Pearce said, explaining the meaning behind the name. "You're taking this trash and turning it into something meaningful and worthwhile"
In fact, the tree is replete with allegory. Filled with pebbles from a gravel bed and ashes from a furnace in Ojai, the bottles embody the four elements: water (the bottles), earth (pebbles), fire (ashes), and air (contained in the bottles).
Hovering on an even plane, the bottles represent the earth, with the branches in the heavens and the oak's roots in the underworld. Altogether the piece shows how people walk below the elements because they haven't learned to care for the earth, Pearce said.
"There's a sense of aspiration about it," he said. "It's poetic."
Still, putting the symbolic installation together was not a complete breeze. Pearce said the biggest challenge was the tedious task of removing all the labels from the bottles.
"My students, thankfully, helped put it together," he said. "Otherwise, I think I would have been distraught by the end of it to get it prepared."
Despite a minor hurdle with some water bottles stolen early on, Pearce said the process was a positive one that he was glad to see finally finished after three months of hard work.
"The best bit was seeing people interact with it," he said. Many stopped to ask him what he was doing while hanging bottles in the days leading up to the April 19 unveiling, he added.
Walking through the mall with her husband Saturday afternoon, Milena Suster couldn't help staring up at the tree and questioning what it meant.
When she found out, she said she couldn't imagine using so many bottles.
"I think that's a waste. . . . We can cut down on all that plastic and just use filtered water from our own faucets," said the 40year-old Simi resident. "I wish people would be more conscious of keeping America clean."
The artist learned something from his work, too.
"My family has been using bottled water for ages, and we recycle thoroughly, but I want to get one of those filter things that you put on your tap," Pearce said. "Those seem like a much better way to go."
Initially, Waste Management was to recycle the bottles used in the installation, but Pearce will recycle them in a different way by first using them in a similar but larger exhibition in 2009.
Simi's "Alchemy Tree" will be on view until May 19.
For more information about the Town Center installation, visit Pearce's blog at blogs.callutheran.edu/pearce/ category/bottle-installation.