Saving Scraps: Sadie Sheldon at ArtPrize 10

John Kissane looks at New Orleans-based artist Sadie Sheldon’s installation for ArtPrize, an annual festival and competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Installation view of Sadie Sheldon’s Scenic Viewpoint, 2018, at Van Andel Arena, Grand Rapids, Michigan, as part of ArtPrize 10. Courtesy the artist.

On the grounds of Van Andel Arena, an 11,000-seat arena dominating a stretch of Fulton Street in Grand Rapids, Michigan, stood several piles of trash, cut and arranged to resemble outcroppings of geological strata. They constitute Scenic Viewpoint, a 2018 ArtPrize entry by New Orleans-based Sadie Sheldon.

ArtPrize is an art festival held annually across Grand Rapids. On May 15, Sheldon presented her project at ArtPrize’s Pitch Night New Orleans event. The five-minute pitch resulted in a $5000 grant and a secured location at the arena to display her project. The festival lasted nineteen days, and the event has historically attracted 26,000 people a day. Between prizes determined by a jury and public vote, over $500,000 was awarded to artists.

Sheldon collected the trash used in her project while riding her bicycle. In much of her work, she is drawn to materials that might otherwise (or were otherwise) discarded; her 2012 ArtPrize entry, Girl on a Train, was made from 342 recycled pizza-sauce cans. Approached from a distance, Scenic Viewpoint works well: The resemblance to the natural landscape is unmissable, and the shock of discovering the cut mattress foam, styrofoam chunks, and other materials constituting it is exciting. Up close, however, the surprise quickly fades, and the viewer is left staring at a pile of junk. One passerby, laughing, said, “Is that art or construction?”

Well, it’s both. The artfulness lies in Sheldon’s eye for color (mint green, stark white) and texture. The different materials counterfeit the wavy stripes of geological strata. Sheldon constructed a piece that did, at times, transport the viewer to a future in which the features of our world are made of things humans have used and then discarded. Then again, this may be our present. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is estimated to be over double the size of Texas.

Sadie Sheldon, Scenic Viewpoint, 2018. Mixed media (detail). Courtesy the artist.

The venue, well-trafficked as it is, was not ideal for Scenic Viewpoint. The project would’ve been better served by somewhere lonely: rocky ground, perhaps, or an expanse of sand. Outside of a concert venue and sports arena, on a busy street, it looked less striking than it should have, and the sculptures could genuinely be confused for the detritus of a busy city, rather than an artistic transformation of that same detritus.

Over the course of ArtPrize, Scenic Viewpoint changed. The weather had an impact. Sheldon, after wrestling with the choice, opted not to protect the piece from the elements. Also, she rented a vending machine and periodically stocked it with cut pieces of the artwork, and viewers were able to take sections away with them. Like last year’s Canceled Edition, an ArtPrize entry by New Orleans’ Pippin Frisbie-Calder, Scenic Viewpoint is both artwork and keepsake. Sheldon’s hope was that, by the end of the festival, all of it would be gone.

After seeing Scenic Viewpoint, as I wandered among other flashier ArtPrize artworks, smelling scented dessert paintings and listening to strange music coming from big sculptural cubes, I thought back to its simplicity. In my memory, the layers of material melted at their edges, becoming less distinct, hazy, as if each bled into those above and below it. It was almost as if I had encountered it in a dream.

Editor's Note

ArtPrize 10 was on view September 19–October 7, 2018, in locations across Grand Rapids, Michigan.