The mighty Ohio River carries more than tall trees and other natural debris in its strong southwesterly current, much of which is dumped at Ohio State Park’s falls.
That children’s toy you left in the yard or the take-out container you accidentally left at Waterfront Park can find its way to the falls, one of the most uniquely ecologically significant sites on earth, dating back nearly 400 million years old is. There’s no other place on earth like this, and the cycle of life takes place in a freshwater ecosystem on the Indiana-Kentucky border – with a trashy human twist.
It’s the garbage calling out 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 could 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 sting in the eye. Comedic and tragic at the same time, his found works of art are childish, whimsical and absurd at first glance, but deadly serious on closer inspection.
His artwork is currently on view at the Moremen Gallery at 710 W. Main St. in the exhibition From the Cabinet of Unnatural Curiosities through August 13. On opening night, a line of people lined the door waiting to see his one-of-a-kind artwork.
The work consists of large hanging clouds made of styrofoam and crazy mammals made of the same petroleum-based material, as well as shelves full of dolls’ heads and collages of lighters. All parts were found and gradually rescued from the falls.
“I interpret history through its fragments. I allow the flow to function as the universal subconscious. He throws things at my feet that I have to consider,” Gorman told The Courier Journal. “What I do is very simple. The styrofoam sculptures I make require Mr. Potato Head level skills. It requires very few tools. I have a pocket knife and some glue.”
His message, however, is anything but simple.
“When people look at my art, they are contradictory. I get strong reactions, but what I’m looking for is that afterimage reaction. Oh, that’s fun, but then you realize what it’s made of. These things were harvested from the riverbank,” he said. “It’s sad in that respect.”
Gorman takes what the river gives to his art, but focuses on the “benchmark materials of our time”.
“How do you live without plastic? As an artist, nobody expects me to be the Jesus of recycling, but I’m involved as a member of society,” he said. “We are part of nature, but by our nature we caused all of this.”
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Since 2003, Gorman has made a regular pilgrimage to the falls, carrying large amounts of debris home for his work.
“It’s a very dynamic environment that’s constantly changing. I’m here whether it’s 100 degrees or minus 14,” he said.
He often photographs what he creates on site, leaving his assemblages for others to enjoy or for the rising waters of the river to carry away.
“I made a piece at the falls, a 16 foot tall polystyrene monolith that I found. I had to dig a hole and find some rope and set it up 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 asked her to take a picture. What she said was, ‘You’re not going to hurt me, are you?’ It broke my heart. I look homeless out there probably half the time,” he added.
Sometimes he grabs something really important, like a purse he found at the falls.
“When I shoveled out the mud there was a wallet in it but no money. I tracked down the owner and it was an elderly lady and she had been burgled a few weeks earlier. The thieves threw her purse into the river,” he said. “What she treasured inside were two tiny black and white photographs of her parents, the only photos she had of them. I dried them and saved them.”
When she met Gorman to get her stuff, “She was lugging her oxygen tank up the stairs, I said, ‘Here’s your purse back. Sorry, it’s still full of mud.'”
Over the years he has noticed a change in the Falls of the Ohio that he attributes to climate change.
“The wild willows that grow by the falls are slowly disappearing as temperatures have risen and heavier rainfall has flooded the sewers. The water rushing over the dam is washing away the trees,” he said. “We lost contact with the river.
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He has a special affinity for the discarded lighters he finds there and neatly reassembles them into even more styrofoam. They give him pause to think about the history of man with fire.
“Being able to control fire was a giant 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, owner of the Moreman Gallery in downtown Louisville, says Gorman’s artwork is “fun, clever and has a great story. How polluted the river is and what ends up there and the fact that art can be made out of it. I love showing it off and it makes me happy.”
Last year, the Kentucky Waterways Alliance named Gorman its first Artist in Residence.
“Many of the Watershed groups advocating for freshwater have a scientific background. Having a creative person involved is a good move in my opinion. I’ve definitely made a commitment to freshwater. It’s really a constant theme in my artwork,” he said.
“I love life, natural history, birds, animals. I’m one of those people who walk slowly because I look at every leaf and every bug on it,” he said. “I’ve been like this my whole life.”
At the moment he likes 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 email@example.com.
IF YOU GO: Al GORMAN ART SHOW
WHAT: “From the Cabinet of Unnatural Curiosities,” an art exhibition by Al Gorman. WHERE: Moremen Gallery, 710 W. Main St.IF: From now until August 13