fig. 11: No Room for Poetry (detail)
© Sharon Siskin, 1992-94


It is remarkable to consider the spiritual sustenance artists feel they receive in return for the community activism they implement. Such feelings have been conveyed by numerous artists who are involved with endangered populations, including Sharon Siskin, who has worked in alliance with HIV+ artists during the 90s to implement a community art project called Positive Art. Issues that arise as a result of the time Siskin spends weekly with people living with AIDS/HIV become the foundation of much of her art. Her concerns with memory and making memorial, sharing stories about feeling the presence of the dead, exploring the ways in which we care for each other as a community and creating public places for people to grieve, are central aspects of her art in this genre.

fig. 12: Final Attire
Wood, Bone, Metal and Ashes, 90"x92"x16"
© Sharon Siskin, 1995

As part of the larger context of Siskin's explorations of memory, loss and hope, it is germane that she consistently has worked with found materials, which she has reclaimed for another existence. This actual and metaphoric recycling is morally commanding in a culture that is presently threatened with environmental demise, an arena of profound concern among Bay Area artists.

fig. 13: Trio Computer Ribbon Clothes
Woven Trash,
Norcal Waste System, 1993
© Estelle Akamine

fig. 14: Pagoda Dress, Zipper Tux
Woven Trash,
Norcal Waste System, 1993
© Estelle Akamine

Approaching the topic from the perspective of a weaver with a social and activist conscience as well as a wonderful wit, Estelle Akamine's high fashion garments created from cast off materials enable her to show others how recycling can provide viable materials for self-expression. Her approach is often quietly subversive, as in her series of formal garments that were woven from reclaimed typewriter and computer printer ribbons for Norcal Waste System's volunteers to wear, while supervising the recyclables stations at San Francisco's Black and White Ball in 1993.

fig. 15: Memorial Post #1
Found Metals (street salvage), 58.5"x9"x9"
© Jo Hanson, 1992

As an extension of her aforementioned daily community cleanings, Jo Hanson has created a variety of objects from street trash: conceptual work and documentation, installations concerning trash and its sources, and sculpture and collages incorporating street-crushed metals. Because "an ocean of urban trash flows daily to (her) windy corner of San Francisco," Hanson has worked to raise public consciousness regarding the realities and politics of living in a waste society.

fig. 16: Garden for Rose DriveSite:
shutdown home on toxic landfill

Arts Benicia, Benicia, CA, 1996
© Susan Leibovitz Steinman

fig. 17: Consuming Landscapes
and other Eating Disorders

Billboard, San Jose, CA, 1996-97
© Robin Lasser

Similarly, Susan Steinman and Robin Lasser merge their activist stances with the emotional and material well being of at-risk individuals with profound concerns about the natural environment. Their exposes have included Steinman's Garden for Rose Drive (1996), sited at a home built on toxic landfill in Benicia, California, and Lasser's Consuming Landscapes series of photographs, which formally and humorously mimics the ways our culture projects its own desires on the land in order to justify its plunder.

fig. 18: Wyalusing Migration: Window for Extinct Birds
Mixed Media, Berkeley, CA, 1993
© Rhoda London and Christine Baeumler

Engaging with the environmental debate in more poetic and historically based terms are Rhoda London and Christine Baeumler's collaborative installations, which have investigated the escalating extinction of bird species as a metaphor for inherent contradictions, persistent loss, and fragility. While some installations, like Room for Extinct Birds (1992) and The Grass is Always Greener (1994) were planned for art gallery contexts, others like Wyalusing Migration: Window for Extinct Birds (1993) were conceived and implemented in public window spaces. The juxtaposition of a visual timeline - which makes equations between the speed of avian extinction and the prolonged departure of dinosaurs - with the reflections in the window of actual birds in flight, creates a sensitive and accessible venue for contemplation of ecological concerns.

A current project on which London and Baeumler are working, 5050: an inventory of the Mississippi and the San Francisco Bay, continues the duo's intertwining of natural and manmade materials and metaphors to pose questions and uncover dualities. The piece is being created for the Watersheds exhibition planned for the Euphrat Museum, Cupertino, California, and ARTSHIP, an historical vessel to be moored at the Oakland waterfront in 1998.

It is complex to embark on a discussion of women artists's work in the public sector with environmental issues and at-risk populations, because these concerns are central to the tenor of our time and potentially involve myriad powerful artists and projects to consider and discuss. Although the ventures examined here provide a pinhole view into an expansive panoramic landscape of artists' work in these territories, the fact that so much healing is needed is profoundly disturbing. Art's potential to assist in implementing a more holistic reality is profound comfort in such uncertain times.


(Estelle Akamine)

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All text © Terri Cohn.