Sea Change

Artist Heather Green converts flotsam into something rich and strange

Ever since she was a small girl, artist Heather Green has scavenged on the beach of the Sea of Cortez, picking up bits of net and fish bones and crispy seaweed leaves.

"My grandpa built a cabin in the early '60s in Cholla Bay, north of Puerto Peñasco," says Green, a Tucson native. "It's a one-room shack."

But that one room is right on the beach, with unobstructed views of the sea-green gulf. And even with all of the Rocky Point development of recent years—the high-rises cluttering the once-small village, the ships overfishing the waters—Cholla Bay "still feels like you're far away," she says. "It's blocked by a headland, a peninsula."

The populations of sea creatures in the ecologically rich Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California, have suffered an alarming decline in recent years, and Green has been moved to make art about the conflicts between the human species and the species of the deep.

A recent master's grad of the UA, she did an installation for her MFA show that was tapped for a prized place in the big Trouble in Paradise environmental show at the Tucson Museum of Art last spring. That work, "Tide Cycle," paired gorgeous little oil paintings of a chair being carried out to sea with photos of the comings and goings of the tides, continuously shown on giant viewfinders.

Green's most recent work, The Ghost Net Project, on view at the UA Poetry Center, gave her a chance to use all the flotsam and jetsam she'd been collecting from the beach for years. A collaboration with poet Katherine Larson, it's a series of 25 shadow boxes, constructed from wood salvaged from decomposing shrimp boats, and filled with nets and weights and lures and shells.

Each box is accompanied by a full-scale poem written by Larson, a close friend of Green's who shares her passion for ecological redemption. Extracts from the poems are etched into the glass fitted into the front of each box. Their exhibition accompanies a series of lectures and readings through the fall on art and ecology, co-sponsored by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Poetry Center.

The Ghost Net Project began at least five years ago. Green was inspired by some Mexican divers along the Cortez who wanted to rejuvenate the depleted fishing beds, and turned to the ecology group CEDO (Intercultural Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans) for help.

"They noticed that the species they fished were declining," she says.

By allowing certain reserves to lie fallow for a time, the fishermen, helped by CEDO scientists, successfully "over six years brought the species back." Green had put together a CEDO exhibit on their efforts, but attempts to make her own art about the divers were faltering.

"I had heaps of fishing debris in my studio," Green remembers. "I'm used to painting, and just putting fishing debris in a box didn't seem like art. I was struggling with how to resolve this."

Green had met Larson at CEDO. Larson holds dual UA degrees in creative writing and in ecology and evolutionary biology, and besides being a published poet, she's a research scientist and field ecologist. She was serving as a field intern at CEDO, and the two women hit it off.

One day, when the poet was visiting the artist's Tucson studio, they brainstormed on how to combine their separate genres, and convert the fish flotsam into fine art. Suddenly, the solution was obvious: Green would assemble the objects, and Larson would write poems about them.

The results are both painterly and poetic, still lifes brought into the third dimension. As you move from one box to the next, you feel like you're wandering the beach from one driftwood pile to another, or swimming deep underwater, washed by the currents from coral to bone to shell. The effect is so mesmerizing that you start imagining that the drone of the Poetry Center air conditioner is the sound of waves splashing ceaselessly onto the shore. (The only drawback is that in the glare of the library, it's sometimes hard to read the words on the glass.)

The colors are wonderful. The pieces are subtly tinted in the shades of the sea, that lovely limited palette of blue, gray, ocher and oyster. Here and there, they're punctuated by the brilliant red or orange of a manmade lure.

The rough-hewn boxes, each about 12 inches square and 6 inches deep, are weathered grays and browns. Copper coils have been sea-soaked into rich greens. A tiny red cord dangles from rusted metal here; and a pink and silver fishing line is twisted there.

In "Ghost Net IV," knotted gray net in thick woven cotton hangs like a curtain at the front of the box, setting a stage for the artifacts below, an array of cottony white debris studded with plastic lures in red and white. Larson's poetic fragment: "invites daydreams of refuge."

"XVI" has a scaly fish skin, silvery white. The animal has been upended, its open mouth pointed toward the ceiling, and it's framed by two pieces of driftwood in a briny gray flecked with white fungus.

These marvelous pieces are as much sculptural as painterly. The curls of weights and bobbles spiral across the spaces, and arches float in strong diagonals, while pieces of driftwood soar vertically upward.

The collaboration between the two artists unfolded in various ways.

"I started playing around," Green says. "She started to write poems inspired by the boxes. Then I would read the poems and make more boxes. We responded to each other back and forth."

Sometimes the juxtaposition is surprising. For "XXI," Green strung fishing weights on a wire, like beads on necklace. Shaped like tears, the heavy pieces of metal are used by American sport fishermen, she says, and make their own contribution to the problems of the gulf.

But Larson saw the swaying shapes and thought of something entirely different: the women and the birds of the Cortez coast. The words etched on the box read: "of the Seri woman in sepia, / bare-breasted in a skirt / of sewn-together / pelican wings."

Elsewhere, the artists are playful. In "XV," Green has hung curving fishhooks from driftwood; they look like galloping seahorses. Larson played along: "Take the seahorses, / expelled from their father's womb / they flutter upright / translucent / as a baby's fingernail, a herd of / ghostly horses."

The ghosts of the project title are more troubling. A ghost net is the name given to a fishing net that has been either lost at sea or deliberately dumped by heedless fishermen. Floating through the water, ghost nets strangle porpoises and trap birds, Green and Larson explain in their artists' statement. The nets are just one more hazard to the declining populations of sea creatures.

Their crisscross patterns, so pretty in Green's boxes, are deadly, just like the weights and hooks and other trash left by fishermen. Green brings these dangerous objects to our attention, but at the same time, as the artists write, "they are transformed from objects of ruin into objects of reverie."