Mercedes Rodgers

Fort Walton Beach, FL | by October 24, 2011

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.

thestudiovisit@thestudiovisit.com


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1 Comment

  • savannah beaux says:

    I’m an artist from new Orleans com­ing to visit the des­tin area. Is this close to your stu­dio? Look­ing to dis­play 50 pieces of art 3d and oils. Do you offer a 20/​80 split with adver­tis­ing? That is stan­dard for me and my art usu­ally sells for $500 per piece.

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