Back River gives up trash for art

A tot's discarded rocking horse has taken on an artful life and become a compelling symbol of a river befouled by debris.

Towson University art students recently salvaged the toy, in two large chunks, during a volunteer clean-up along Back River in Essex.

"When it came out of the river, it was scary, dirty and something like the swamp creature," said Vicki Miller, 19, of Parkton, during a class critique last week in anticipation of a trash art auction.

But Olivia Moore saw in the yellowed, broken toy the potential to deliver an anti-pollution message. The Capitol Heights freshman washed away the grime, painted the horse silver and hinged the pieces together. She left a gap between maned head and hefty haunches. Then, she added touches that took it far from a plaything. She filled the midsection gap with red tubing that spills from the structure and splattered burgundy paint on the silvery surface. She was going for the grotesque — "a condensed Back River," she said, to show the harm caused by dumping trash into a waterway.

"It is gross but cool and so fitting," said Molly Williams, project manager for the Back River Restoration Committee, an activist group dedicated to cleaning the waterway that flows into the Chesapeake Bay. "It makes you ask who would do that to a horse. When you are picking trash from the water, you think who would do this to this river."

The transformed horse will be among dozens of pieces, nearly all recycled from the river's detritus, at the committee's second annual Trash Art auction Sunday at Ballestone Stansbury House in Essex. Students from Towson and the Maryland Institute College of Art, who spent hours clearing the river, are the major contributors, but other locally known artists are also donating art work.

The live and silent auction raised about $7,000 last year and organizers have higher expectations this year and even more pieces for sale. Jim Pollock, a Hampden artist renowned for his annual hubcap Christmas tree, said "there is a market for this stuff, but it is mostly about the creative process.

"The students have done a wonderful job reutilizing," he said. "They have created without worrying about whether their material is new and pretty. They resculpted and discovered things we don't often see."

They turned soda bottles, beer cans, scraps of metal and driftwood into art, some of it utilitarian. Heejung Song, 23, of Olney used a discarded CD for the face of a flower-shaped clock and cut and painted pieces of plastic to resemble petals and a long stem. The clock's battery is the only element not retrieved from the river, she said.

One student made a flower pot from a tire — one of dozens pulled from the river during the cleanups that have removed nearly 180 tons of trash in the last 12 months. Another polished stones and fashioned them into a necklace. Trash jewelry is really trendy, Williams said.

Jessi Huey, 19, of Pocomoke started with a hubcap, added pennies, stones and moss for a three-dimensional piece.

"I wanted to show there is garbage in Back River, but there is treasure underneath," she said.

Michele Schroder, 27, of Locust Point converted a weathered, industrial-sized wooden spool into a tabletop and then, with more salvaged wood, made a bottom piece of the same dimension. Mackenzie Solomon, 19, of Baltimore attached a piece of wrought iron to a tree stump. She painted the metal black and adorned it with bits of moss and polished the wood to delineate its rich burling.

"The piece reminds me ofDr. Seuss," said Pollock. "I can just see the Grinch sitting on this."

Erica Montez's creature from the river initially appears playful, but a closer look reveals a darker side. The 20-year-old from Chesapeake Beach built a body from empty beer cans and alcohol bottles and made its spinning head from a splitting baseball, all tossed into the river. It holds a cigarette butt in one hand and a lighter in the other. Glued to its side is a discarded sign. Montez isolated and blackened letters to read "I'm the enemy."

Cindy Tran, 19, took her river cache home to Fort Washington, where she scrubbed it all and left it to dry in the sun. Her mother, unaware of the impending art project, tossed nearly all of it into the trash. All that remained were man-sized work gloves. Undeterred, Tran tied trash-filled plastic arms to those gloves and a whimsical robot sprang from there.

Auction participants can see these pieces and much more trash art from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, May 20 at the mansion, 1935 Back River Neck Road, Essex. Tickets are $20. Information: or 443-414-4384.

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