Eco-artist stages plastic intervention


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By Michelle Dybal

Arts Editor

Visual art can make viewers stop in their tracks. Maybe it's the masterful technique, or the images are really intriguing, or it sends a message that can't be ignored. In the case of Bryan Northup's assemblage work, currently showing at the Forest Park National Bank, all three apply.

Northup works with plastic as a fiber, takes items such as bubble wrap, foam and plastic bags, and uses household tools such as an iron and a chef's knife as he crafts sushi-like elements or cell-like structures in creating wall reliefs and sculpture.

"My intent is to stage an intervention about modern society's craving for convenience and dependence on this toxic material," Northup's artist statement says. "After plating these exotic delicacies and tempting you to seriously consider eating plastic, I hope to call into question our comfortable habits when choosing and using this material in our daily lives."

The Oak Park artist previously worked with discarded glass but has focused on plastics since 2015 and now considers himself an environmental artist. Northup said he hopes his art exposes viewers to something aesthetically beautiful while raising awareness of the environmental impact of items that never decompose.

"We see plastic everywhere, from grocery store shrink-wrapped vegetables, to bags, straws and to-go cups littering the street. We see so much of it that we really don't see it anymore," he said. "I aim to show this material in an unexpected way that sticks with people and makes them think the next time they have a choice to make about buying or using disposable plastic."

The idea to reduce or even eliminate plastics is topical in Oak Park as the village is encouraging residents to join the international Plastic Free July initiative. According to the village of Oak Park website, "The local Plastic Free July effort is two-pronged — get residents to refuse single-use plastics like straws and bags and get merchants to stop automatically offering them to their customers." Green Community Connections is also running a 30-day Plastic Free Summer Challenge in honor of their cofounder, the late Sally Stovall.

Northup and his family of four do their part to reduce plastics in their household and will participate in Plastic Free July.

"I am encouraged to see that in the few years I have been creating in this mode, the global awareness of the plastic crisis has grown, and measures are being taken to clean up and phase out single-use plastics," he said. "It starts with outrage at the awful effects plastic has on the earth, then a conscious decision to change, and remain aware. The Challenge is a great way to have some success at making a change in everyday habits and is a good opportunity for teaching young children about single-use plastic. There are generations now that have never known life without plastic. While it is an amazing material and has advanced humanity in countless ways, its terrible environmental consequences can no longer be ignored."

While others see waste and recycling, Northup sees "plastic as paint in a tube" and thinks his art may someday be a time capsule of sorts for a type of plastic that won't be used forever.

"I hope my artwork can help raise awareness to our plastic addiction and inspire viewers to think differently and make a change," Northup said. "My hope is that single-use plastic becomes outmoded with bio-plastic and other emerging options and that a cultural shift occurs, sooner than later, that demands humanity stop its dependency on disposable plastic."

View Bryan Northup's exhibit, "Cellular Level" at Forest Park National Bank, brought by the Oak Park Area Arts Council, through July 6. Mondays through Fridays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. 7348 W. Madison St., Forest Park. His art will be at Counter Coffee in Forest Park in July and August and at Oak Park Village Hall in September and October. More information on Plastic Free July through the village of Oak Park: For more on the Plastic Free Summer Challenge:

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