At first glance, the installation in one corner of the Columbia Art Center gallery in Long Reach conjures up images of sails and, well, sales.
Six white vinyl tablecloths are knitted together by rows assembled from 300 plastic shopping bags, and the resulting billowy curtain hangs from the ceiling to the floor. The curtain arcs around a large, nestlike sculpture of handmade paper, created from shredded junk mail and suspended by fishing line. Dangling over and lying under this nest are single curled strips of textured packing paper.
Welcome to "(M)i-pod," one of a few dozen works on display through Sunday in an exhibit titled "Art Reinvention," in which 29 artists used raw, organic, found and recycled materials in inventive ways. The show is part of the Columbia Festival of the Arts, which takes place each June at various venues around Columbia.
"We began planning this last fall around the festival's theme of green practices and saving the environment," said Liz Henzey, director of the Columbia Association facility, during an artists' reception Tuesday. "The response has been so positive that we plan to do it again sometime."
Janice Crum, who partnered with co-worker Emily Michael on "(M)i-pod," said their project challenges onlookers since it's not intended for ownership, unlike most of the other works.
"This is just for this time and then it will be gone, and that creates a tension that doesn't fit in" with conventional notions about art, said Crum, a Columbia resident who works as a daytime program assistant at the center.
Michael described their piece as "confrontational" because it takes up a lot of space and demands attention, yet "welcoming" because it's ethereal and womblike at the same time.
"We noticed someone peering in it like there was something precious inside the space," said Michael, a Baltimore resident and office facilitator at the center.
At the opposite end of the arrowhead-shaped gallery, a small, curved geometric dome made of dozens of eggshells also speaks of strength and fragility. Baltimore artist Christina McCleary, who considers herself a sculptor, said she "enjoys taking something as every-day and ubiquitous as eggshells and creating something beautiful."
"A geodesic dome is a very strong structure, so I wondered what I could make a dome out of that is fragile and I thought of an egg's ephemeral quality," she said of the juxtaposition of ideas embodied by "Expectation." Eggs are stronger than one might think, she added, because their bottom-heavy shape can withstand a lot of downward pressure.
The eggshells are the remnants of consumed eggs and are dropped off to her by friends at her request so she can avoid wasting them and becoming "an extra-consumer for the sake of art," said McCleary, who serves as the center's ceramics manager and as an adjunct professor at Howard Community College.
Ken Beerbohm was among the first exhibiting artists to explain his art's back story to visitors, who gathered around the exhibits in the informal and intimate setting.
"My motivation is to make people laugh or smile," the Columbia artist told the gathering of three dozen or so as he held a whimsical work titled "Climbing With Flair."
"These are birds from a prehistoric time. They're trying to adapt to modern life, but they can't fly," he said, sharing the plot he envisioned as he created the sculptures of clay and other found materials. "I hope people will look at them, smile and then try to figure out how they're done."
Roslyn Zinner's medium of choice clearly echoed her professional goal of helping individuals put their lives back together in her work as a divorce mediator.
"I take broken glass and make something that's whole," the Columbia resident explained of her purpose in creating stained-glass collages.
"I Can't Hear Arguments From Under the Bed," which depicts a boy hiding from an unhappy home life, demonstrates what children feel when their parents are fighting, she said. Mixed in with the shards of glass are slivers of Popsicle sticks, a reference to his youth.
Her other collage on display is a stained-glass portrait of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, whom she called "one of my heroes."
"I tried to capture her spirit of dynamism and excitement," said Zinner, who got a laugh when she added, "and I relate to her because I'm also short and a social worker."
The juxtaposition of creating fine artwork on an object used by Third World populations to hold food or water intrigues Deanna Williford, who discussed working with gourds. While they seem really sturdy, they're actually very fragile and breakable, she said.
She briefly placed on her head a gourd she'd fashioned into a lampshade and decorated with Appaloosa ponies, telling the crowd how she'd first considered making it into a hat. Another gourd with a distinct pear shape has a new life as a birdhouse, yet won't disintegrate over time like wood does, she said.
Michelle Dunn employed the unusual technique of trapping India ink between a sheet of acetate and strips of clear packing tape in a piece called "What Remains."
The Columbia artist, who will travel to Turkey in September to judge an art show and oversee a panel discussion with artists from around the world, said there's just enough air between the layers to allow the ink to move around when left to its own devices.
"You never know what you're going to come back to" when checking on the self-developing medium, said Dunn, who teaches classes at the center when not working on solo projects.
The artist who drew the most questions from onlookers was Donald Edwards, a Baltimore mixed-media assemblage artist who appeared to be king of found objects.
Contained within a half-sphere of wire armature in a work titled "VW" are all kinds of things he's collected and repurposed — a style of art that evolved from a penchant for displaying the individual objects to a desire "to try to use up all the things I'm amassing," he said.
"I like older objects since they tell the story of the time they were made, but newer objects are making their way in and [together] they show the passage of time," he said, noting he works on more than one sculpture at a time.
Henzey, who has led the art center for 20 of its 23 years, said hearing artists discuss the evolution of ideas and techniques is fascinating.
"You really feel their passion as they talk about what inspires them," she said.