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Up Close: Reclaimed plastic becomes '3-D impressionist painting' in new gallery show

Monday morning in the art gallery at the Lied Education Center for the Arts at Creighton University, Sayaka Ganz is casually swinging a racquetball racquet and contemplating the 16-foot whale in plastic and aluminum suspended from the gallery ceiling.

Ganz, a sculptor in the medium of reclaimed plastic is at Creighton over the next month, working on her latest installation, comprising the whale, several penguins, some betta fish and jellyfish (whose tendrils are formed from the strings in racquets like the one Ganz is holding), and a large, brilliantly yellow bird she calls “The Phoenix.” The works are made entirely from plastic Ganz finds at thrift shops — ranging from ladles and spoons, to hangers to parts of household appliances. She cuts some pieces into different shapes and sizes and to fit her artistic vision, but other pieces remain wholly intact and often serve as a wry wink in her work: like the little plastic fish forming part of the tail in a betta fish sculpture. Ganz affixes the pieces to an aluminum superstructure using wires and cords or old Christmas lights.

This week, Ganz began inviting students from Creighton art classes to help her ready plastic pieces to fit into the various sculptures and, pondering the whale, saw a few spots calling for just a touch of plastic coverage.

“There is a lot of trial and error,” the sculptor said of placing the plastic pieces. “The first pieces I put on always come off. But placing each piece is a very conscious decision and it can get very difficult.”

Ganz started as an artist in printmaking, gradually progressing to sculpting in metals. She said her two-dimensional background and her subsequent 3-D work has helped crystallize in her mind what she wants from the plastic sculptures she’s been making for 10 years.

“It’s a 3-D impressionist painting,” Ganz said. “Standing back, you get a good sense of the whole piece — the colors, the movement. Go in closer and you start to see different elements at work. Everything becomes brushstrokes. And I always want to leave plenty of space in a sculpture. I want the viewer to be able to see through a piece.”

Standing up close to a Ganz sculpture, one becomes fascinated by the whole range of items the artist has incorporated into her pieces. For the whale, plastic sleds in blue, green, purple and black hues woven through the aluminum armature became an integral component of the creature’s body, providing bold colors and textures.

But the body also contains pieces of lawn chairs, toy train tracks. The whale’s nose is given shape and volume using a souvenir baseball helmet. An ice scraper forms part of the tail. And a toy spider crawling over a toy carriage wheel forms one of the leviathan’s eyes.

“It’s such a complex process,” said Kristina Saffari, a junior from Los Angeles who has assisted Ganz in the gallery over the last week. “To see how she works and makes the decisions that she makes, to see something so creative, so beautiful, created in such a systematic way, it’s really amazing. And she makes a lot of progress, day to day. A number of people in the past week have stopped to watch and see it all take shape.”

And now, Creighton students are taking a hand in scrubbing the plastic, helping smooth the burrs from Ganz’s work with the bandsaw and helping the artist get the perfect pieces she needs to bring the sculptures to life.

Ganz said she first started thinking about sculpture in this vein as a youngster when her mother would undertake crafting projects for which there would be lots of scraps.

“I’d play with the scraps, turn them into something new,” Ganz said. “They’d become sort of like my friends. I remember having a deep affinity for those scraps. They were just going to be discarded and I wanted them to find new life.”

So the scraps came first, Ganz said, but then came a deeper message in her work: that of our throwaway society in which people don’t have an attachment to everyday objects and usually don’t give a second thought to tossing something out with the trash where it could have an environmental impact lasting a millennia or more.

Saffari said the ecological tone of Ganz’s work, especially her sculptures of marine life, plays strongly on the notion that what makes the sculpture is ironically making our world, its flora and fauna, sick.

“The trash vortex out in the Pacific is mostly plastic that’s having an adverse effect on the life in the ocean,” she said. “It’s a form of social justice that doesn’t hit you over the head but it’s effective. It dawns on you, sooner or later. I think that’s what makes these pieces so powerful.”

Ultimately, the pieces Ganz is creating at Creighton will be exhibited at Lauritzen Gardens from January to May 2018.

As Ganz continues to work daily in the gallery through the middle of November, she will also make two public appearances to talk about her work. The first will be Nov. 3 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and again on Nov. 10 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., at the art gallery in the Lied Education Center for the Arts.

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