“My ethic as a person has always been using whatever I find. The idea of going to the paint store and getting a tube of paint — and that’s your medium — does not make sense to me,” says artist Meg Hartwig.
She was using a screw gun, hinting at her training in carpentry, to assemble “Refuse II,” part of her installation at the 849 Gallery inside the Kentucky College of Art + Design (KyCAD) at Spalding University.
A Michigan native, Hartwig studied in her home state before moving to New Orleans just a year before Katrina. During the ensuing time of traveling and study, she earned a post-baccalaureate in ceramics from Louisiana State University, a carpentry degree from Seattle’s Wood Construction Center, and a master’s of fine arts at the University of Washington.
For the last decade, she’s lived and worked in Seattle, including a residency at Seattle’s Material Recovery Facility, essentially the city’s recycling center. The residency led to the creation of “Pillar,” or “Refuse I,” the other main piece of her Louisville exhibition.
“Refuse” is a good example of Hartwig’s practice — she limits her creations to mostly found materials and objects. But it’s not just that she uses found materials to make art; the found materials embody her art.
For example, Hartwig explains that when she wanted to create a piece of art addressing issues surrounding housing, she made it out of pieces of a demolished house. Frequently, the medium is the message — and the question.
But this focus on found material is not a straightforward statement or a didactic accusation about our society’s relationship with trash, but a more complex examination.
“The medium itself is imperative in content, so the idea of trash being used in most of my work was literally talking about systems,” she tells Insider.
Often this examination questions what the use is of certain objects. How do they function? Why are they useful to society’s systems? But that’s still a simple and flawed explanation for Hartwig’s work.
As we talked about her art, she shied away from standard descriptions to explain her medium, genre and practice.
“So for this body of work, yes the medium is trash. It was refuse, I was in a residency for five months using it as my medium,” says Hartwig. “The work I used and made, it comes from waste, it comes from refuse. That’s the ethic of me as a person more than anything. More than ‘What is a conversation I want to have? How do I make that happen?’”
Part of that ethic is a continued exploration of artistic processes, many of which are multilayered. “Refuse I” does an excellent job of showing the layered process. First, she created an armature in the basic shape of a column around which she attached some of Seattle’s refuse. She spray-painted it white to highlight shadows and color values.
Then, using ballpoint pens, she created the larger-than-life drawing of the column. While she eventually bought the pens, even that began with found objects.
“I originally started finding ballpoint pens at the recycling plant,” she explains. “To me, it’s important that it’s ballpoint pen, because it’s something you can just find on the street.”
Hartwig then placed the drawing on top of a pile of chain-link fence material, situating that pile and the column behind another chain-link fence.
Those are the skills and techniques she used for “Refuse I,” but her other works are just as complex and use completely different steps. For example, another piece included digging up root vegetables she had grown and mummifying them.
It’s a constant exploration.
That complexity is just one strata of what is happening in Hartwig’s work, which also is thick with conceptual meaning.
Some small ceramic objects she’s created feature information and ideas, appearing to be cell phones or other small everyday items. The objects have a function to be examined and are layered with images that have their own meaning. These ceramics can be an investigation for the viewer if they choose to engage and dig deeper.
“Like codes, you know,” says Hartwig, pointing to a small ceramic piece that features juxtaposed words like “yes” and “no” with images of vulvas and UPCs. “They all mean something. Those of you who want to sort of look further into it, it’s up to you.”
These smaller pieces, as well as the ceramics, mummified roots and scraps of demolished houses, Hartwig sees as refuse from the last 15 years of her work. Which brings us to the meta commentary and questioning of her own use that is “Refuse II,” the other main part of this exhibition.
It includes a unique creation, a small “trash trailer” that holds all of this refuse.
Appropriately, the trailer itself is made from a combination of the wood shipping crates used to carry the pieces of art to Louisville, and other found wood from the city, including weathered lumber gathered at the Falls of the Ohio.
Attendees would be well-rewarded by taking a stroll through Hartwig’s Flickr page to see some of her refuse and art in its various original installations. It makes for a deeper engagement with the objects in their new setting.
What gives Hartwig’s interrogation a validity lacking in some artists in the intensity with which she turns her interrogation technique upon herself.
“That’s really important to me, that any questions I’m asking of the viewer, I’m asking myself,” she says.
Her answer included an intention to throw away all the art once it has finished its time on display in Seattle. However, a large number of fans, friends and devotees have contacted her, essentially saying, “If you’re throwing it away, please tell us where the dumpster will be.”
This reaction suggested to Hartwig a conclusion we believe anyone viewing the installation will share: This work has great value.
Though she was convinced to show the exhibition one more time, here in Louisville, at the end of its run here, the work will be liquidated and all the small pieces will be sold off, often for a fraction of their value.
Other pieces of the exhibition will be thrown away.
“Refuse: Art Installations by Meg Hartwig” will be on display from Thursday, Nov. 30, through Jan. 19 at 849 Gallery, 849 S. Third St. Do yourself a favor and attend the opening reception on Thursday, from 5-8 p.m., which includes an artist talk at 6 p.m.
The gallery is open Thursdays and Fridays from 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. or by appointment.