The Art of Recycling

Wilson creates from what already is
By Saad Ghosn

Roscoe Wilson. Photo by Saad Ghosn.

“For me, to be an artist is to be an activist,” says Roscoe Wilson. “They are not separate. For the past 15 years I have made work that consistently raises concerns about over-consumption, waste, destruction of our environment, big coal and big oil. My work investigates broader issues to draw people in to take a closer look.”
Wilson, a local artist and associate professor of art at Miami University-Hamilton, grew up in rural northern Indiana and southern Michigan. He lived most of his life in close contact with nature, surrounded by water, trees, woods and animals. This shaped his environmental values as he learned to love the earth, its beauty and poetry, the materials composing it, its inhabitants.
“Growing up in nature enabled me to develop an awareness only a forest, lake, field, can offer,” he says.
In college, even though destined to create art, he spent significant time studying biology, discovering the secrets behind the function of the natural world.
Wilson started drawing at a very young age. Very early on and influenced by his father and grandfather, he also made and built things out of wood and recycled material. These experiences served as his initial engagement into the arts.
He later attended Wabash College, Indiana, earning a bachelor’s degree in art and biology, then Purdue University, earning a master of arts degree in painting/printmaking, and the University of Wisconsin (UW), earning a master of fine arts degree focusing on printmaking, sculptural installation and painting. While at UW, he studied the history of environmentalism and drew inspiration for his artwork from former Wisconsin residents and environmental pioneers John Muir and Aldo Leopold.
From the start Wilson’s work addressed nature, how it is being affected and destroyed by our consumer-oriented, industrialized society, but also how it can be protected and enriched, contributing to a better life.
“If we treat our world well, the world will treat us well and we’ll end up treating each other better,” he says.
From his first year of college and throughout graduate school Wilson was encouraged, in addition to design, to think of content. He probed inside himself, connecting to his childhood and past experiences, and researched his themes and grabbed at historical references. His art came from a personal place, but at the same time took a universal dimension, adding to his own symbols imagery and concepts borrowed form books and nature. He repeatedly referred, for instance, to the mayfly, an insect that emerges every six years from a larval form under water to live for only 24 hours, thus alluding to the hidden world behind what one sees every day.
Concerned by the big waste characteristic of our consuming culture, and having developed a great appreciation for natural materials, his art was often based on found objects, rusty nails, prints printed on discarded boxes, paintings on recovered wooden lathes. His sculptures and large installations would also often use collected bottle caps and cardboard boxes, arranged and organized to initially draw the viewer by their vibrant colors, large scale and esoteric appeal, then to trigger deeper questioning and understanding.
Instead of making new things, Wilson gave new life to things that had already existed, thus not adding pollution to the world and reaffirming his message of “reduce, reuse, minimally consume.”
In addition to his “art recycling” and distressed by the large amount of “trash” thrown away at parties he attended, Wilson started a widespread recycling program at his college, involving other students, friends and later family.
Waste and recycling aside, Wilson became progressively interested in broader themes, those of the environment, polluting energies, climate changes. The deleterious effect on the planet of burning coal, oil and natural gas; the devastating result of oil spills on the ecosystem; and the green potential of alternative sources of energy – solar, wind and geothermal – preoccupied him and found their way into his art.
His Tree series consists of paintings that address the beauty and majesty of trees, magnificent expression of nature on earth, but also vulnerable to human destruction and victim of polluting waste. Having a Ball represents a dead tree, result of urban construction/destruction. Last Stand speaks to industrial insult, nature bulldozed away, replaced by degraded earth. Oil Field, another painting from the same series, shows a destitute landscape of black oil drums, suffocating a decaying, barren, leafless tree. On the trunk of the tree are remnants of a child’s tree-house, alluding to the innocence of childhood disappearing, pushed away from its natural source and habitat. The dead branches of the tree are shown taking over the entire sky and horizon, replacing life with death, obstructing the future. Wilson meant his image as an apocalyptic landscape of the never-ending wasteful consumption. Started before the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it proved prophetic in its realism and message. Wilson is now preparing a tapestry installation of prints of oil drums, one print for each day the BP spill lasted; they will be pinned up together in a large piece, ominously invading the entire display space.
While teaching, Wilson also engages his students to think about the various issues that concern him and the world. He does it either by discussing works of established artists who have raised consciousness through their art or by giving students assignments based on specific topics. As a mentor to the students’ ecology club and in charge of their art club, he uses both venues to integrate art with environmental awareness.
Wilson will continue to use his art as his voice for the protection of the environment. He wants to read more, learn more, connect with similarly concerned individuals, add to the debate and make a change. Coal, mountaintop removal in strip mining and, the origin and culture of food are topics he would like to explore more and address in his artworks. He feels that most social and political issues relate to the environment, are interconnected and stem from the same roots.
“Art is an important expression of who I am,” he says. “It is a continued synthesis of my experiences and beliefs, and as such carries and communicates my messages. I love the earth and want to preserve it; I want my art to shake our apathy for the degrading environment. Our backyards, deserts, oceans, have become receptacles for waste to dump, spill, and leak into our lives. It has to stop.”