Close to the heart of Fort Walton Beach, Florida, ceramics artist Mercedes Rodgers has created a center of gravity for the art-minded. The Full Circle Gallery is a warm and welcoming place with a fully-equipped ceramics studio, retail space, and gallery. The space strikes a perfect note in this unique region. On weekend nights you might find a group of local residents learning to throw pots while sipping wine or you might stumble on an opening for a diverse array of Southeastern artists. The studio also offers a space for articulating personal, local, and national concerns through community-based art projects conceived by Rodgers herself.
Most important is her community quilt project, the S.O.S. (“Save Our Shores”) Security Blanket, which she conceived to memorialize and meditate on the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which profoundly affected this region. The S.O.S. Security Blanket is so far comprised of 300 squares made of discarded petroleum-based plastics. It will soon go on a national tour beginning in Seattle, Washington and ending in Washington, D.C. in 2013, where it will serve as a “visual petition” for better energy policies to lawmakers.
I spent a lovely morning recently with Rodgers, discussing the process of making the blanket and exploring her “other studio” … by canoe. We decided to tool around the Santa Rosa Sound on the Emerald Coast, a slice of Florida known for its turquoise waters and flawless beaches and home to nesting shorebirds and sea turtles. Rodgers, whose pottery and watercolors are clearly preoccupied with birds and flight, draws inspiration from this ecologically diverse place.
As a child, she spent hours playing in water and fashioning little pots from mud, a rich tactile experience that has shaped her life. At age nine, she moved with her family to Belize, where she met an old woman who took clay from the river and fashioned and fired her own terra cotta kitchen tiles.
“There was this realization that you could take something from the earth and turn it into something permanent,” Rodgers says. Years after that, she became involved in the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy, New York, where devoted herself to ceramics. She later returned to Florida, where she has roots, bringing with her a strong need for an artistic community.
We discuss her decision to come back to this area as we continued to paddle, spying jumping fish and nesting osprey along the way. The water was like glass and mostly absent of other boats, so it soon felt as though we were a hundred miles away from the busy world. Yet, before long we heard the rumble of an MC-130 cargo plane taking off over the water from Hurlburt Field, the closest military installation. It was from this particular US Air Force Base that, within hours of the January 2010 Haiti earthquake, the first American crews departed, spearheading a massive relief effort.
And so, in a place where it might be tempting to cast off your flip-flops, knock back a Corona and forget your cares, it is easy to see a nexus of intersecting problems our society faces today concerning that problematic stuff which drives our economy, our lives, and our military: oil.
After all, this region was hit hard by the worst oil spill ever seen in the United States. Last year’s BP oil spill hurt wildlife and tourism and it also hurt those who work for the oil industry. Indeed, oil does touch everything, not just when it lands on snow-white beaches, but in its centrality to everything people do – from running fishing boats, to using air travel to reach vacation homes, to fueling a massive military machine, which in turn supports a whole local economy.
With a more well-known project in mind, the AIDS Memorial Quilt, Rodgers responded to the issue by launching the quilt project. Many of the Security Blanket’s squares are crocheted or knitted from discarded plastic shopping bags. Others are fashioned from pieces of plastic utilizing collage or sewing techniques. There are also squares made by children with hand-drawn images of dolphins and turtles. Aesthetically, the blanket is more like an Afghan throw than a quilt, which adds to its fresh, quirky charm. But despite its folksy appearance, the intention behind the blanket is quite serious. Rodgers wants to provide a means by which to weave together community fears, hopelessness, and anger in a healing and collective act.
This is not the first time Rodgers has facilitated a community-based artmaking project. In March 2010, she created a multimedia installation and community project entitled “Strange Bird,” based on the paradox of birds as symbols. For her, on the one hand birds are the freest of creatures in flight, but in captivity they are somehow the most circumscribed of beings, which becomes a metaphor for people’s lives.
An essential part of the exhibit was inspired by the Japanese custom of folding a thousand origami paper cranes to be granted a wish for healing, a good life, or world peace. Rodgers invited the public to contribute paper cranes with hopes of “bringing security and peace of mind to the collective.” In a twist, she asked the participants to ponder what security means and how their wish for personal security may lead to confinement rather than freedom.
Both the Security Blanket and the “Strange Bird” project revolve around the question of security, challenging people in the community to dig below what the word means on a personal level, family level, and society level to examine the broad, intersecting issues that underpin –and undermine – our security in the world. Creating a security blanket is a healing act, but we can never be safe as long as we seek security in our dependence on oil. Oil gives us everything we wish for but at a cost that can threaten our communities, our environment, and even our standing in the world.
I ask Rodgers about the irony of using petroleum products to create a piece of work that also serves as a protest against them. For her, using plastic in this instance forces contributors and viewers to think about its petroleum origin in the course of its transformation into art. “I want them to think about the insane amount of energy that is being used to dig this stuff out of the earth to be made into single-use products, which we turn around and throw right back into the earth.” She contrasts plastics with clay pottery, the product of a natural, ancient, and sustainable process. The juxtaposition between the two materials is deeply felt for her.
I also ask her about the seeming contradiction between her two roles as an artist. Whereas the process of making ceramics is solitary, much of Rodger’s other work is very public and collaborative. She responds saying that she loves to invite the community into her process, either by watching her work in the studio, taking a throwing class, or providing creative input into her community-based pieces.
“I love that heartbeat pulse of many people being around, involved… that’s why this space is so important,” she says. Perhaps most importantly, however, the practice of making a community quilt represents a return to a time when people lived sustainably and had a stronger sense of community; A time when friends came together to make quilts and in so doing, patched together the fragments of their experiences in pure gestures of loving support.
The SOS Security Blanket will be in Seattle, Washington at Cal Anderson Park, near the fountain, on September 27th from 5:00pm-7:00pm and at the Full Circle Gallery in Portland, Oregon on September 30th from 4:00–8:00pm.