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Trash into treasure: Exhibit in Vancouver showcases Bill Leigh’s airy, angular recycled art

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
8 Photos
Artist Bill Leigh salvages garbage to create art, including this piece, "Rotating Cubes," on display at Art at the Cave gallery in Vancouver. The piece is made from reclaimed metal railing.
Artist Bill Leigh salvages garbage to create art, including this piece, "Rotating Cubes," on display at Art at the Cave gallery in Vancouver. The piece is made from reclaimed metal railing. (Photos by Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

When you walk into the new “Trash to Treasure Artist in Residence” display at Art at the Cave, you’re struck by the exhibit’s spartan feel. Artist Bill Leigh’s airy, angular sculptures are utterly contemporary in their sensibility.

Some pieces contain Escher-like interlocking shapes or elements within elements, a sort of Chinese puzzle ball of sleek geometric outlines. Looking at these sculptures, your brain feels clean and alert.

You’d never guess that Leigh’s gleaming works of art were born from a trash heap.

Leigh, the first ever artist in residence with Waste Connections and Clark County Public Health, sponsor of the annual Clark County Recycled Arts Festival, gathers discarded material from Clark County garbage transfer stations and rebirths them as sculptures. Art at the Cave is displaying a collection of his pieces until Jan. 29. Leigh will be at the gallery from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday for an artist’s reception, when he’ll discuss his art-making process.

“What I really like about watching Bill with his work is that he’s not a trained artist. He’s self-taught and so he has his own methods,” said Terri Elioff, “Trash to Treasure” exhibit curator and Leigh’s partner. “Often he’s holding up pieces and saying, ‘What could this be?’ It’s not so much about putting recycled materials together to make another object but using the raw materials as a medium.”

IF YOU GO

What: "Trash to Treasure Artist in Residence" exhibit

Where: Art at the Cave, 108 E. Evergreen Blvd., Vancouver

When: Through Jan. 29 with an artist’s reception from 2-4 p.m. Saturday. Regular gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

Information: 360-314-6506; artatthecave.com; recycledartsfestival.com/artist-in-residence; or billleigh.com

Leigh, a commercial real estate developer who restored the Kiggins Theatre before selling it to the current owner, said he started collecting discarded items about 12 years ago. In the beginning, he scavenged materials for his sculptures from scrap yards, friends and local farmers — anyone with old metal bits and pieces.

“The first shovel mask I made, it was so bad I gave it to the neighbor,” said Leigh, who lives in Felida. “I was throwing it away and he salvaged it.”

The anecdote contains an irony perhaps not lost on Leigh, who has rescued, according to his own estimate, several thousand pounds of discarded objects that would have otherwise gone to a landfill over the past decade.

“The work has gotten bigger,” Leigh said. “It’s gotten more refined. I’m getting better at my finished work and there’s more variety. It’s not just making a fire pit or a metal bench or something to stick in your yard.”

A few years ago, Leigh approached Sally Fisher, Recycled Arts Festival founder, about gathering materials from local transfer stations with the express purpose of creating art.

Portland has the GLEAN Artist in Residence program. It offers five juried artists five months to collect objects from transfer stations and use them to make art that’s at least 95 percent recycled material. The art is then exhibited to the public; artists keep most of the proceeds from whatever is sold. Couldn’t Clark County, Leigh wondered, do something similar?

After much interagency coordination, the answer is a provisional “yes.” Clark County Public Health’s fledgling artist-in-residence program is something of an experiment with Leigh as its ambassador. He is, for now, the only person in Clark County permitted to collect items from transfer centers, said Camille Shelton, an environmental outreach educator for Clark County Public Health.

Leigh, however, can’t simply stroll into any transfer station and pull things out of the refuse pile, Shelton said. He has permission to gather at only two transfer stations, one in west Vancouver and another in Brush Prairie, and he must follow safety protocols. Whatever he gathers must be used for the artist-in-residence program.

“He hangs out in the drop-off areas and surveys the loads,” Shelton said. “He communicates directly with people. He’ll explain the program and what he’s doing and work with the customer to get the items.”

Leigh has been following this procedure since August, working nonstop over the past five months to assemble the 16 sculptures currently on display at Art at the Cave. Most of these sculptures are 90 to 95 percent recycled material from the transfer station, Shelton said. Even the least-recycled sculpture is 80 percent reused materials. No matter what the exact percentage, it’s proving to be extremely popular with local art collectors. Six of Leigh’s sculptures sold within the exhibit’s first days, Elioff said.

Leigh calls his work “geometric abstract.” That translates to shapes with smooth edges and polished surfaces, not a hint of grime or rust. The elegant linear assemblages are conceptually far removed from the disorder of a dump, elevated from chaos into simplicity.

Visitors to the gallery will see sculptures with squares, rectangles and circles. The tallest sculpture, “Red Tumbling Rectangles,” made from metal handrails and a disc blade, soars 10½ feet into the air. The smallest, most delicate pieces, like “Female Form,” are made from welded grill parts.

How does Leigh see beyond the junk to the gem that will eventually occupy a gallery window? Leigh said that what makes a piece of erstwhile trash sculpture-worthy isn’t relative cleanliness but sturdiness. It doesn’t need to be pristine, but it does need to hold up to grinding, sawing, welding or bending. Sometimes lighter items, like a powder-coated bed frame, can’t be separated from their original use, he said, but heavier pieces like a propane tank can be cut up and reconfigured into something with more artistic gravitas. Case in point: the metal deck railing that Leigh said is the basis for many of the “Trash to Treasure” sculptures.

The sculptures in the show are priced from $250 to $800. Leigh said he isn’t attempting to make a career out of his recycled art and has no plans to leave commercial real estate.

“I would be very skinny if I had to do this for a living,” he quipped.

Rather, he’s attempting to make a point: So much of what we throw away isn’t really trash. Landfills are full of nearly new items that are “actually quite usable in their original function as well as material for art,” Elioff said.

This is exactly what the artist-in-residence program is intended to highlight, Shelton said. She hopes that the program will continue next year.

Right now, Clark County Public Health is focusing on the next Recycled Arts Festival, June 25 and 26 in Esther Short Park.

As for Leigh, he’ll participate in the popular festival “if he’s accepted,” he said modestly, although that seems likely.

For her part, Shelton said she’s “impressed with all his pieces,” but especially likes the dangling “Woman on the Moon.” Elioff also admitted a fondness for Leigh’s more playful works.

“I love the clean lines of the abstract pieces, but I have to tell you, ‘Walking the Birds’ just cracks me up,” Elioff said. “Bill just picked stuff up and said, ‘Hey, I know what I’m going to do.’ ”

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