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PROFILE : When Junk Is Art : This artist and teacher is working on seven totems, each a pillar of unrecyclable waste.


The year was 1983, the city was Santa Barbara, and the site was the bathroom of Kim Loucks, aspiring artist. Loucks, freshly made up, tossed a lipstick-smudged tissue into the toilet.

"It just hung there," she recalled the other day. "It looked like a shout in the dark, and that's what I called the series."

The series was a succession of artworks built around castoff lipstick smears. The works were a departure for Loucks, who until then had concentrated on figurative drawings and oil paintings. It was the beginning of her career as a creator of art from refuse.

Now the 35-year-old artist and teacher does most of her work with castoff materials. She is by no means a big name, but in these days of heightened environmental awareness, she and many artists such as her are enjoying a small boom in public attention.

"I'm really intrigued with involvement art. I really like this project because it's involving me with people, instead of keeping me in my studio making pretty little boxes," said Loucks, waving her arm at the brightly colored detritus strewn about her studio.

Since May, Loucks has been working on her largest and most explicitly trash-based artworks to date. Drawing on a grant of $2,500 from the Ventura Arts Council and $1,000 from the disposal firm Waste Management Inc., she plans to construct seven "trash totems." Each will be a pillar of unrecyclable waste, 8 feet high, 2 feet wide and 2 feet deep, held together by a wood frame and metal fencing, and placed in a public venue.

"It's just such an obvious and natural way for people to be able to incorporate those concerns in their art-making," said Elizabeth Shepherd, curator at UCLA's Wight Art Gallery, which recently had a show dedicated to California assemblage artists of the past 40 years.

Making art from junk is a trick as old as this century, Shepherd and others are quick to note. And the medium doesn't necessarily have anything to do with environmental awareness. But, said Elizabeth Smith, an associate curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, with environmentalism such a widespread concern "there may indeed be more of a tendency toward that in artists' exploration of the issues."

At the environmentally oriented Biota gallery on Los Angeles' arty Melrose Avenue, Director Kathy Biart said she has been seeing, and showing, more and more assemblages of recycled objects.

"People really seem to respond to that more than they used to," Biart said.

Officials of the city of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, meanwhile, have started planning a "Materials for the Arts" program, which will seek castoff materials from industry and business, collect them at a free materials bank, and hand them out to nonprofit arts organizations and artists with public projects in mind.

Cultural officials, still seeking a city property to convert into headquarters, hope to have the bank up and running in about a year, in conjunction with a variety of educational programs linking arts and recycling.

"There may be a boomlet now," said Barbara Goldstein, planning coordinator for the Cultural Affairs Department, "but there's going to be a real boom over the next few years."

A finished trash totem stands at the door of the Loucks studio on North Palm Street in Ventura. Assembled from trash donated by friends and family, it confronts passing shoppers with a jumble of green, red and yellow plastic rising from a base of concrete chunks.

Inside the studio, cardboard boxes are crowded with contributions for the other six totems. There is a cross-section of trash from the county dump, which Loucks hopes to place in the Oxnard Financial Plaza: a collection of musicians' castoff guitar picks and drum heads, destination unknown; and a gathering of discarded office supplies and defective low-flow shower nozzles from the city of Ventura, to be displayed on a city-owned lot off Figueroa Street.

Loucks also plans a junk-mail totem, destination unknown; a high school totem she hopes to assemble and place during a monthlong stint at Ventura High School in November; and a "flotsam and jetsam" totem of trash collected from the Channel Islands. She hopes to display the island findings in the Ventura Harbor area.

Her work habits are simple. Loucks rinses the unrecyclable trash in gray water, which leaves her work area no smellier than the typical artist's studio. She arranges the objects and then stacks them in rectangular frames of wood and metal fencing. But newcomers happening upon her studio are sometimes quizzical: Is this art, or is it a batch of irreparable toy cars, empty stain-remover jugs, cracked PVC piping and plastic six-pack rings?

"It's been a tough project to sell," acknowledged Loucks, seated just inside the studio door. "People in Ventura have not seen this in their local museums."

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