Bits 'n' Pieces: Styrofoam art evokes tough truth

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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If you walk into the North Bank Gallery this month, don't worry about the Styrofoam on the floor. It's the art. Walk all over it, says the artist.

"I'm excited to see how people will react to this. Walk or don't walk? People respect art so much," said Kanaan Kanaan, who is spearheading a new show of Middle Eastern-focused art. It opens today during downtown's First Friday Artwalk and stays up all month; Kanaan will be there in person to greet visitors.

You wouldn't think of Styrofoam as evoking the ancient feel of the Middle East — but that's not what Kanaan's newest works are trying to do. The show is called "From the Atlantic to the Gulf" and the word "gulf" is intentionally ambiguous. There's the Persian Gulf but there's also the Gulf of Mexico — and what brings them together, Kanaan said, is petroleum production. Petroleum, of course, is what Styrofoam is made from.

"I was intrigued with this particular medium starting when I was a little boy," said Kanaan, who grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan. "The shape of it, the way it squeezed, the way you rub it. Of course at the time we didn't understand its impact on the environment."

Styrofoam — the trademarked name for extruded polystyrene foam — is a problem that never goes away. It takes hundreds of years to biodegrade and is a major source of ocean pollution. Although it's widely used in drinking cups and food containers, some juries are still out as to whether styrene is a carcinogen to humans.

Kanaan didn't focus on any of that as his career was ascending. He studied at the College of Fine Arts at Baghdad University before immigrating to the U.S. in 1994. He was an adjunct professor in Portland State University's art department for eight years; now he is a Middle East Student Adviser at PSU, and a Portland resident.

"I did lots of other work about culture and interfaith dialog and understanding and spirituality, trying to bridge the cross-cultural gap and make both sides understand each other," he said. He's still pursuing those themes, he said, but the conversation needs to be larger. "We are all in this life, we all have to take care of this planet. It doesn't matter who you are. If you breathe and eat you have to take care of this planet."

Using petroleum to make art "is a statement on its own," he said. "It's a statement on the reality of oil, constantly using and producing oil, and what a big carbon footprint we have and what a mess we have contributed to."

Some visitors may find Kanaan's Styrofoam creations challenging, even disturbing — like the figure of a corpse that's been blown apart by a bomb. "These are the kinds of things I grew up with. I grew up around death and bodies and war. These are things Americans don't see, but wake up and it's there," he said.

Kanaan's art is on display all month alongside the works of several other Middle Eastern artists at North Bank Artists Gallery, 1005 Main St. Regular gallery hours are 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday. Admission is always free.

Bits 'n' Pieces appears Fridays and Saturdays. If you have a story you'd like to share, email bits@columbian.com