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visual art

Animal alchemy

Halifax-based sculptor creates vibrant creatures out of repurposed ‘man-made garbage’

A decade ago, Johnston Foster’s sculpture The Fowl Play was included in 21c’s inaugural exhibition at its first hotel museum in Louisville, Ky.

Beneath a derelict Zellers on the outskirts of Halifax, Johnston Foster wraps a piece of yellow outdoor extension cord around a honeybee the size of a football. He bolts it in place with the high-pitched buzz of a screw gun and perches it with the swarm: 102 other giant bees made of ribbed PVC drain pipe, bicycle tubing, wire and corrugated plastic.

This is BuzzKill, in progress – a sprawling contemporary-art installation that’s been two years in the making for 21c, an American chain of boutique hotels that double as modern-art museums. Foster designed it specifically for 21c’s Bentonville, Ark., hotel restaurant, The Hive, led by chef Matthew McClure, a 2017 James Beard finalist.

Bentonville, home to Wal-Mart, has become a significant arts hub; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, founded by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, opened there in 2011, while 21c Bentonville opened in 2013.

Foster’s installation will be mounted in the restaurant by the end of this month. For diners, it will be like hanging out inside a giant beehive. Massive chunks of oozing honeycomb alight with colossal honeybees will hang from the ceiling and be part of the banquette seating. The artist’s interpretation of Japanese knotweed or kudzu – an aggressive plant that’s invaded the landscape along southern U.S. highways, as well as in Ontario, Newfoundland and British Columbia – weaves throughout the restaurant. A cadre of curious characters – skulls, birds and snakes – will loom among the vines.

Johnston Foster's The Keeper, 2010. 21c Museum Hotels

“It’s going to be a sense of maybe ecstasy and chaos at the same time,” said Foster, 38, who uses found materials and curbside junk to bring creatures and organisms to life. “There’s this luminous sort of bright honeycomb and all this symmetry, but at the same time there’s this invasive presence that is a little on the creepy side.”

Born and raised in Williamsburg, Va., Foster has had considerable success as a sculptor in the United States. He and his New Brunswicker wife were both art professors at his alma mater, Virginia Commonwealth University, when they decided to move to Halifax five years ago. With a second child on the way, they wanted to live near her family.

Back in 2003, before Foster had even finished his MFA at Hunter College in New York, he was taken on by a gallery in Manhattan. He was with RARE Gallery for 12 years and that led to the relationship with 21c. A decade ago, two of his pieces – a wooden kinetic chandelier powered by a raccoon, and a giant vibrating peacock – were included in 21c’s inaugural exhibition at its first hotel museum in Louisville, Ky.

Since Foster moved to Nova Scotia, Red Bull TV came to the province to film a documentary episode of Diplo Presents: @ Large – Creators at Work, which aired in 2015.

His most beloved piece, a life-size sculpture of a tiger made from repurposed traffic safety cones, was featured in a 2015 Wall Street Journal story about hotels doubling as art galleries. (It’s now at the Durham, N.C., location of 21c.)

Foster’s installation What the Flock?!

“People really respond strongly to the work,” said Alice Gray Stites, 21c’s museum director and chief curator. “It’s visually beautiful. It’s whimsical because they’re animals, but it’s also really compelling. He’s making interesting references to the natural world and what is happening to our species in the process of adaptation to changes in the environment.

“Once one sees Johnston’s work, you don’t forget it.”

Art collector Jean Pigozzi has purchased several of Foster’s pieces, including a life-size lobster, made of red Rubbermaid trash cans, that’s smoking a cigarette.

Other commissions followed, culminating in this largest, most elaborate project yet.

In the space below the old Zellers, three assistants cut cheese-slice-sized squares from cured sheets of carpenter’s glue. They press and drape the squares en masse over the huge chunks of honeycomb. There are 1,000 square feet in all – painstakingly assembled by cutting and gluing together thousands of tiny corrugated plastic shapes.

Foster’s most beloved piece, The Keeper, is a life-sized sculpture of a tiger made from repurposed traffic safety cones, among other materials. It now sits at 21c’s Durham, N.C., location.

A tarped-off space is the metal-cutting room, where the kudzu vines take shape. Foster and his assistants have already cut 2,000 heart-shaped leaves from dark-green roofing metal and are working on stemming them with green clothesline wire. A snake pit of green garden hoses on the floor will bring it all together, weaving and tangling throughout the 1,800-square-foot restaurant.

Foster has collected hoses for the past two years, scouring roadside junk piles in his suburban Halifax neighbourhood and throwing them in the back of his ‘95 Nissan XE mini pickup truck. Canadian Tire dumpsters were also fruitful.

Foster says he just chooses to work with what he finds in his environment, though there is no denying his sculptures are a critique of consumer culture.

“Taking these things that are inanimate, that you find by salvaging material that’s synthetic or mass-produced and turned to waste, and changing them into new things that refer to living life – there’s a whole new life and purpose given to them. To refer to living creatures, through repurposing mass-produced, man-made garbage – there’s a magic to that. It brings life back to those materials, like alchemy,” he said.

And the name BuzzKill? It surprisingly doesn’t refer specifically to bees. Foster says it’s that otherwise enjoyable moment when you suddenly realize everything we consume comes at the expense of the natural world.

“When we do think of it, we push it away and it’s a buzzkill.”

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