Polymer Tides | Shared Inspiration at the Shoreline

Summer 2018

The Rhode Island shoreline has inspired generations of artists—you can scarcely browse an art fair anywhere in the state without seeing evidence of it—but where many are moved to paint watercolors of lighthouses or take pensive photographs of sunsets over the bay, Joan Wyand and Scott Lapham are inspired by different muses.

Joan Wyand’s assemblages and Scott Lapham’s found sculptures comprise the Polymer Tides exhibit at AS220.

Lapham is known primarily as a photographer and Wyand as an avant-garde performance artist, but both found something new to say through sculptural work that tells stories of a shoreline in peril.

In a classically Rhode Island turn of events, both Wyand and Lapham spent time in 2016 scouring the shore in East Providence, roughly a half-mile from each other, gathering the raw materials for what became their joint exhibition at AS220’s Project Space gallery, Polymer Tides—and neither was aware of the other.

The two were eventually brought together by AS220 Gallery Director Neal Walsh, and their combined work is surprisingly cohesive for two artists working in isolation.

Polymer Tides, which ran from November 4-25, 2017, is a collection of three-dimensional, collage-like sculptures made entirely of materials collected along the shoreline.

The pieces are immediate and unsettling, and the realization quickly hits you: All that junk was in our water. Plastic bottles are by far the number one offender, but human-generated, inorganic bits of all sorts mix with organic matter to create startling reminders that things we throw away don’t necessarily go away.

Despite the similarities, however, Wyand and Lapham’s interests and approaches came from different directions, making their eventual convergence even more interesting.

Wyand, who has worked with trash as fodder for other types of creation in the past, finds wonder in the possibilities of reusing what others have discarded.

“I just kind of fell in love with this stuff. It’s like the shoreline was this vintage store,” she recalls thinking. “Why are these things even here? Why aren’t we reusing them?”

So, she began reusing what she found, assembling pieces of driftwood, plastic bottles, and other detritus into playful sculptures. The intent is not to gloss over the damaging effects of litter in our tidewaters but to reframe the idea of waste.

One of her goals is to remind viewers that if we, as a society, were more serious about reusing waste materials, most of that junk wouldn’t have found its way to the shoreline to begin with.

“I want people to stop thinking of it as [only] a problem,” she explains. “There’s material out here. How can we use it?”

For his part, Lapham approached the shoreline more as a documentarian.

“I started looking at the tideline as a sample of what’s really in our environment,” he says. “There’s beauty in the way the sun and tides have arranged things.”

Naturally, he tried photographing what he found, “but it just looked like trash,” he notes.

His desire to show people exactly what he was seeing led him to a novel approach: preserving sections of debris directly at the shoreline with an epoxy resin so that they can be displayed on a wall just as they were found. Lapham did not arrange or construct the material into these pastiches of plastic bottles, twigs, and shells, he only selected which areas to preserve.

“When people realize I didn’t construct the sculptures, they kind of do a double take,” he says. “That’s what I was hoping for. We all know what it is—putting it on a wall allows a different kind of reflection.”

That two artists coming from different points along the shoreline can find such remarkable continuity speaks volumes about their creative processes, but the loudest and clearest message is about the tragic ubiquity of our wastefulness in one of our state’s most precious places.

—  By John Taraborelli

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