The mighty Ohio River sweeps up more than just large trees and other natural debris in its strong southwesterly-flowing current, much of which gets unceremoniously deposited at the Falls of the Ohio State Park.
Those kid’s toys you left in the yard, the take-out container you accidentally left at Waterfront Park may find its way to the Falls, one of the most uniquely ecologically significant places in the world, dating back nearly 400 million years. There is no other place like it on earth, and the cycle of life plays out in a freshwater ecosystem on the border of Indiana and Kentucky — with a trashy human twist.
It’s the trash that calls to Al Gorman.
Gorman, 65, surveys the landscape at the Falls, with a keen eye for that special piece of driftwood, Styrofoam, a plastic bottle, a baby doll’s head, or a flip flop that might become part of a work of art.
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If art is in the eye of the beholder, then Gorman’s art is a poke in the eye. Comedic and tragic at the same time, his found-art pieces from him are childlike, whimsical and absurd at first glance, but deadly serious upon reflection.
His artwork is currently on display through Aug. 13 in the show “From the Cabinet of Unnatural Curiosities,” at the Moremen Gallery, at 710 W. Main St. Opening night saw a line of people outside the door waiting to see his unique artwork.
The work consists of large hanging clouds of Styrofoam and wacky mammals made of the same petroleum-based material, plus shelves filled with doll heads and collages of cigarette lighters. All the pieces were found and rescued bit by bit from the Falls.
“I’m interpreting history through its fragments. I’m allowing the river to act as a universal subconscious. It throws things at my feet to consider,” Gorman told The Courier Journal. “What I do, it’s very simple. The Styrofoam sculptures I make take Mr. Potato Head level skills. It requires very little in the way of tools. I have a pocketknife and some glue.”
His message, however, is anything but simplistic.
“When people look at my art, they are conflicted. I get powerful responses, but what I’m looking for is that after-image response. Oh, this is fun, but then it becomes clear what it’s made of. These things were harvested from the riverbank,” he said. “In that respect, it’s sad.”
Gorman takes what the river gives him for his art, but focuses on the “benchmark materials of our time.”
“How do you live without plastic? As an artist, no one is expecting me to be the Jesus of recycling, but I am complicit in this as a member of society,” he said. “We are part of nature, but by our nature, we have caused all of this .”
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Gorman has been making regular pilgrimages to the Falls since 2003, carrying home large amounts of debris for his work.
“It’s a very dynamic environment that changes all the time. I’m here whether it’s 100 degrees or minus 14,” he said.
He often photographs what he creates on-site and has left his assemblages behind for others to enjoy or for the rising river waters to carry away.
“I made a piece at the Falls, a 16-foot tall monolith of Styrofoam that I found. I had to dig a hole and find some ropes and erected it like the pyramids. I looked like someone who just crawled out of the river, dirty and sweaty, but proud. I noticed a woman photographing fossils. I had my camera with me, and I asked her to take her picture. What she said was, ‘you’re not going to hurt me, are you?’ It broke my heart. Probably half the time I look homeless out there,” he added.
Sometimes, he scoops up something of real importance, like a purse he discovered at the Falls.
“When I scooped out the mud, there was a wallet in there, but no money. I tracked down the owner, and it was an elderly lady, and she had been burglarized a couple of weeks earlier. The thieves threw her purse in the river,” he said. “What was in it that she treasured were two tiny black and white photographs of her parents, which were the only photos that she still had of them. I dried them out and saved them.”
When she met Gorman to collect her belongings, “she dragged her oxygen tank up the stairs, I said ‘here’s your purse back. Sorry it’s still full of mud.'”
Over the years, he’s noticed the transformation at the Falls of the Ohio that he attributes to climate change.
“The wild willow trees that grow at the Falls are disappearing as temperatures have slowly risen and heavier precipitation has overwhelmed sewer systems. The water rushing over the dam is washing away the trees,” he said. “We’ve lost contact with the river. We think we can rearrange the plumbing to meet our needs.”
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He has a special affinity for the discarded cigarette lighters he finds there and neatly assembles them into even more Styrofoam. They give him pause to reflect on man’s history with fire.
“Being able to control fire was a huge leap in human evolution, but now it’s just a disposable thing,” he said. “If I had a lighter in my pocket 12,000 years ago, I would be king.”
Sue Moremen, who owns Moreman Gallery in downtown Louisville, says Gorman’s artwork is “funny, it’s clever and it’s got a great story. Just how polluted the river is and what ends up there and the fact that art can be made of it. I love showing it and it makes me happy.”
This past year, the Kentucky Waterways Alliance named Gorman its first artist in residence.
“A lot of the watershed groups that advocated on the behalf of fresh water come from a science background. To have a creative person is a good move, I think. I’ve certainly been engaged by fresh water. It’s really a theme throughout my artwork,” he said.
“I love life, natural history, birds, animals. I’m one of those people that when I go out for a walk, I go slow because I look at every single leaf and any bugs that are on them,” he said. “I’ve been that way all my life.”
For now, he’s happy to go slow and focus on his art.
“Life is absurd, and so is my artwork,” he said. “It’s art that makes you smile and makes you think.”
Reach Photographer Pat McDonogh at firstname.lastname@example.org.
IF YOU GO: Al GORMAN ART SHOW
WHAT: “From the Cabinet of Unnatural Curiosities,” an art show by Al Gorman. ONDE: Moremen Gallery, at 710 W. Main St.WHEN: Now through Aug. 13