New exhibit at Wichita State’s Ulrich focuses on the environment

More than 70,000 used chopsticks were delivered to the Ulrich Museum of Art last week. Three days later, California artist Donna Keiko Ozawa created a sculpture with these wooden utensils.

Ozawa is one of 40 artists in the Ulrich’s exhibit “Nature’s Toolbox: Biodiversity, Art and Invention.” This international tour features artists from Norway, Israel, France, China, Argentina and the U.S. Each work, whether a sculpture, print or photograph, focuses on the environment.

In 1999, Ozawa decided to explore her ancestors’ heritage after graduating with a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Art Institute of Chicago. By working with chopsticks and sculpture, she explored art and consumerism in Japan. Ozawa collected tens of thousands of chopsticks, washed and sanitized them, and began making sculptures without the use of glue or nails – just gravity. She named the project “Waribashi,” the Japanese word for disposable chopsticks. A few years later, this San Francisco native took her wooden sculpture technique back home.

“I collected about 180,000 chopsticks from 18 restaurants in San Francisco in two months,” Ozawa said. “A lot of what this project is about is labor.”

Ozawa crafts creative sculptures that examine both art and what cultures do with surplus waste. In addition to the intricate shapes that Ozawa creates with her sticks, she wants to educate her audience about waste.

“Most people don’t see chopsticks in this quantity,” she said. “They don’t often think about the cumulative impact.”

More than 20 million trees in China are used to make the 80 billion disposable chopsticks produced annually in that country. Along with natural disasters like mudslides, this phenomenon has led to an increase in deforestation. Factories in the U.S., Japan and Russia also produce these one-time-use utensils. Most of the wood for a chopstick comes from bamboo, but cottonwood, birch and spruce trees are also used.

“It’s not just chopsticks. There are mountains and mountains of products,” Ozawa said. “There are spoons, tongue depressors and coffee stirrers.”

Ozawa, like many of the other exhibitors in “Nature’s Toolbox,” wants people to realize the impact of environmental choices, and in Ozawa’s case, the ramifications presented by one-time-use items.

“Whatever action is inspired I’m happy with,” Ozawa said. “If we find the way where people can change a habit even in the slightest way, it’s good.”

Another exhibitor at the event is Lori Nix, a native of Norton, Kan. In October, Nix will speak about her photographs combining hand-made dioramas that juxtapose dangerous environmental threats with beautiful artistry. Nix has two works in this exhibit. She also has work at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

Although the museum’s new director, Bob Workman, did not book this show, he finds the exhibit both exciting and topical.

“It is a very smart show,” Workman said. Although several museums have hosted the exhibit, the Ulrich is the first art institution to show it, he said.

Workman also is looking ahead to celebrating the museum’s 40th anniversary in April. In the future, more real estate at the Ulrich will be dedicated to students’ works.

Workman said the museum is renaming the museum’s lower floor “The Ulrich Underground.” Because large shows need 18 to 36 months’ advance notice to book, the Ulrich Underground will be more spontaneous.

“It will be tied directly to the curriculum of the school of art and design,” said Workman, a graduate of that school.

Other changes at the museum include the hiring of curator Jodi Throckmorton. Throckmorton earned a Master of Arts in museum studies from San Francisco State University. Her last curating job was at the San Jose Museum of Art.

Stephanie Teasley has been named the museum’s registrar. Teasley said her goal is to make information about the museum’s collection more accessible to students and the public.