Operable Units explores intersection of sustainability and art

Ripple Effect: From Industry to Environment in the Kalamazoo River Basin

Photo courtesy of University Art Gallery

By Suzanne Herrin

Staff Writer

Sarah Lindley’s exhibit, Operable Units, tells her story of growing up on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. The 15’ x 25’ white paper structure suspended from the ceiling is made entirely from one abandoned Plainwell paper product found in a paper mill. Directly beneath it lies brown clay, woven into serpentine patterns.

Lindley comments, “Clay is my first love and it is a powerful material with a rich and dynamic history. The geometric paper structure overhead goes nicely with the winding clay structure below and creates a sense of balance.” Commenting on how she transported and set up such a large and delicate piece, she says, “I made custom wooden crates for the clay components. The crates have cubbies made out of foam that are specific to each section. The large white piece is assembled from 12 large parts that were attached to carrying frames.” Since the exhibit takes up nearly the entire room, and encompasses motion, the exhibit has a sort of a microcosm effect.

Not only does Lindley create art, she also “performs the roles of researcher, geographer, architect, project supervisor, and laborer.” She has branched out from her work with monochromatic pieces and has begun experimenting with industry and her surroundings.

Lindley’s heightened sense of the environment emerged from an early age as she witnessed paper mill waste being dumped into the Kalamazoo River. This pollution left a lasting impression on her and led to Lindley’s creation of Operable Units. Lindley created the white paper structure, Exposure Pathways, as a representation of the paper mills and their accompanying environmental implications. The clay structure represents the river and its transition from a natural and life-giving entity to a dirty and polluted one. As a whole, Lindley’s work shows the beauty and wonder of nature. Lindley wants viewers of her work to form their own opinions, but also “hopes that visitors have the inclination to consider how their physical position in relation to the object changes both how readable it is as well as the references it makes.”