Croker sack art at Troy State

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 17, 2003

On the flight from Atlanta to Montgomery, Janet Nolan looked out and was fascinated by the patterns of the farmland of the South. She studied it closely, not realizing that, a short time later, she and a group of Troy State University students would incorporate those patterns into a collaborative installation project that would turn heads and raise eyebrows.

Nolan is a Montgomery native, but a New York artist, who frequently turns heads and raises eyebrows with her art.

Her sculptures are assemblages made from multiples of recycled everyday objects, such as discarded umbrellas, lost gloves and recycled plastic six-pack holders. Her sculptures vary in size from a few inches to a hundred feet.

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"The process of transformation is central to my work," Nolan said. "Through the process of collecting, recycling and reconstructing, forms emerge that often reference constructions found in nature - vines, webs, nests, pods, cocoons and, even, faces."

When Nolan arrived on the campus of Troy State University to participate in a short residency program with the art department, she had no cue as to the kind of recycled objects she would have at her disposal.

Jerry Johnson, department of art and design chairman, suggested several objects and Nolan quickly eliminated all but one - burlap bags, or as folks in South Alabama call them - "croker" sacks.

Here, in the Deep South, corker sacks are familiar, plentiful objects and ones to which most people can relate.

"I began to think that croker sacks are used for shipping pecans, peanuts and cotton," Nolan said. "Food and clothing. Those are among our basic needs. I knew that those sacks would work for our project."

As with most of her artistic endeavors, Nolan started without any idea of the direction the project would take.

"I started to play with the idea and it slowly developed," she said. "When working with multiple objects, I work in units."

Nolan could have expanded the sacks by pulling them apart or unraveling them, but, instead, she chose to contract them. Partly because gallery space would not accommodate a large expansion and Nolan had between 2,000 and 3,000 sacks with which to work.

"We began to roll each sack and tie it to make a unit," she said. "One unit contained 15 bales."

As the unit took shape, so did the project.

Nolan and the TSU art students used wooden pallets as frames for the units.

"Pallets are also used for shipping, so the two objects worked well together," Nolan said.

One combination of sacks and pallets resembled a fence, much like one that would border farmland.

"We had stuffed the units from the same side of the pallet frame, giving the piece the appearance of a front and back," Nolan said. "You shouldn't have a front and back to a sculpture, so we alternated the way the units were stuffed into the pallet."

But, there was another concern. Because of the way the pallet was constructed, the pallet itself had a front and back.

"I decided if there was going to be a back to it, we should make it a back," Nolan said, laughing. "So, we added tails to the back."

The students then stacked units leaving a hole in the center.

"We went has high as we could go without it toppling over," Nolan said. "When it was finished it looked much like a well on a farm. So, it's a well."

Another structure has the appearance of a shelter, and Nolan liked that.

"Another of the basics - food, clothing and, now, shelter," she said.

The entire collaborative installation began to resemble the farmland that Nolan had seen on her flight to Alabama. Farmland with edges defined by color and structures.

So, the suggested name for the project is "The Edge" but the artist has not yet adopted it.

But, when the show officially opens from 6:30 until 8 p.m. Thursday night, the collaborative installation will have a title.

And, those who come to view it will be impressed said Morgan Thompson, a senior art student who is working on the project.

"This is so exciting," she said. "I like the idea of using found objects to make art. Those who come need to come with an open mind. They need to flex their imaging muscles so they can see beyond what the eye can see. This is so cool."

Exhibitions of Nolan's work in New York include Hunter College, Long Island University, Franklin Furnace, American Fine Art, Dru Artstark Gallery, Islip Art Museum and Smithtown Arts Council.

"Nightingale" is Nolan's permanently installed sculpture that was commissioned for the Harvard School of Public Health and hangs in the atrium of the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Building in Boston.