Garbage on a voyage

The herd ambles gracefully into the field from the edge of a patch of woods, its members grouping protectively as they move forward into high grass. One is down, possibly injured. Another bends over its fallen comrade, apparently trying to, well, iron out the problem.

When the Forest Service released its own pack of real elk into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park two years ago, artist Dave Etheridge was stirred to pay tribute. From 60 salvaged ironing boards — plucked typically one at a time from beside a Dumpster near his home in Needmore, outside Bryson City — he crafted his herd.

Etheridge’s creation, first shown at the Haywood Arts Repertory Theatre in Waynesville, currently graces the home of Barbara and Russell Smith at the top of a mountain near Canton (though the artist says he kept 10 or so “elk” for “breeding stock.”).

Other people’s garbage becomes gold in Etheridge’s hands. The driveway to his cottage is decorated with castoffs — there’s no questioning Etheridge’s dedication to environmental issues — but his art may be more about found objects than recycling.

A low, serpentine wall leading to his home is constructed of stone — and everything else. Glazed ceramic figurines (made by the cabin’s former tenant) donate their whimsy. Too, you’ll find the head of an old treadle sewing machine. Rusted tools. Enameled pots. Pieces of aged wood. The body of a wood stove. Door knobs. And a number of unidentifiable objects.

Etheridge says his neighbors often stop by to offer more items for his wall.

Meanwhile, up on the front porch stands “The Horse No One Can Ride”: What’s left of a child’s red-and-white rocking horse, stuck to a ragged plywood base, is corralled by several strands of rusty barbed wire.

A larger, diagonal piece of plywood hangs at the end of the porch, completely encrusted with plastic bottle caps announcing that their respective soft-drink buyers were not winners of some fabulous prize. Etheridge calls this piece “Losers.”

Ten or 12 vandalized mailboxes hang at various heights from a tree at the base of the drive; their name tells their whole story: “A Redneck Killed My Mailbox.” From another tree dangles a rusty, two-wheeled tricycle, its missing wheel suspended uselessly from a separate limb. “The End of Innocence,” it’s called.

Where did this guy come from?

Etheridge was studying business at the University of Georgia when he signed up for an art-survey class — and began to wonder why he’d wasted four years. His teacher was painter Jamie Howard, whom Etheridge describes as “dramatic” and “dynamic.”

“[He] referred to himself as a painter, not an artist,” notes Etheridge. “He said it was up to others to decide whether or not he was an artist.”

Etheridge felt liberated by his instructor’s philosophy, and redirected the course of his life.

There was an earlier tug toward art back in high school, when his class was assigned a poem to read. The accompanying illustration was a sculpture of a car crushed into a cube. Etheridge doesn’t remember the poem, or who made the sculpture; he recalls only the discussion that ensued over whether a smashed vehicle constituted art.

For Etheridge, there was nothing to discuss.

Art materials are everywhere in his world. Sometimes, wonderful things are thrown down embankments or discarded along the roadside; other inspirational debris is sometimes washed up by rainstorms or uncovered in overgrowth in the woods.

Presently, several coils of rusted barbed wire lean against the side of Etheridge’s cottage, waiting to be arranged into Olympic circles.

Across the yard, a storage shed houses a finished work — the four-panel, 8-by-16-foot “Useless Brown Rocker.” Every worn and tattered element of the old chair is carefully arranged upon these panels — the leather upholstery from the back, the wooden arms, sections of the frame and bits of horsehair stuffing.

The effect is that of an instructional diagram: The rocker could, the piece suggests, be reconstructed.

Sometimes sculptures present themselves complete to Etheridge, needing only a title.

Beside a trash receptacle at a boat ramp, the artist discovered a deserted baby stroller stuffed with beer cans. Its carry compartment was filled, as was the tray in front; the seat cradled a blue Wal-Mart bag, bulging with still more cans. Plus, there was a tiny bottle of rip-off Armani cologne.

Etheridge changed nothing. Here, already created, was “Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.”

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