Kim Bernard, an artist who creates sculptural installations out of recycled materials, is using a Kindling Fund grant to design and fabricate a series of machines that will turn recycled plastic into malleable material that can be used to make sculpture. She will ask members of the community to contribute to her recycle bin, seen here. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

For several years, Kim Bernard struggled with the personal ethics of her art practice. She preached reuse, reduce and recycle in her personal life, but didn’t always achieve that goal in her work.

“I was thinking about how I buy art supplies and create art with it, which is raw materials turned into something else. With my encaustic work, I use a heat gun and a butane torch, venting heat and fumes outside,” she said. “I had a moral dilemma with all of that.”

As much as possible over time, Bernard has integrated recycled materials like bowling balls, inner tubes and ocean debris into her art, and beginning Jan. 1, she pledged to use only recyclables in her art and work toward becoming a carbon-neutral artist and resident. “My goal is to stop using raw materials in my work, to reduce, reuse, recycle in my studio, like I’ve done in my home,” she said. “My New Year’s resolution was (and) is to buy nothing new and throw nothing away. I’m adding nothing to the landfill. I don’t use trash cans. I’m collecting that which I cannot recycle. I’ll most likely make art out of it.”

She has reorganized her studio in Rockland into boxes of discarded man-made detritus that will have another life in a piece of art someday – food packaging, nylon bags and around 300 Altoids tins. “As much as I don’t like collecting crap at my studio or house, I am,” she said. “I take anything I think I can do something with, anything that’s got potential. I don’t know what yet, but it’s got potential.”

With the help of a Space Gallery-administered Kindling Fund grant, which supports innovative artist initiatives, and money from the Maine Arts Commission, Bernard is taking her personal goal of eliminating waste in her art practice to the larger community. She is building a four-machine mini industrial plant that’s she’s calling a Portable Upcycling Machine for Plastic, or PUMP, that will convert plastic waste into malleable sculptural material with a shredder, injector, compressor and extruder. Using designs that she found for free on the internet, she is building the machines to be compact so she can trailer them to schools, community centers and other public places to create plastic sculptural installations using material that members of the community collect in advance.

With the material sorted into different colors, Bernard will feed the plastic into the machines and it will ooze out as warm, upcycled plastic, much like Play-Doh, that can be shaped in infinite ways. She is eager to experiment with the extruded coils of plastic to see what she can create.

She is in the process of building the machines, and will finish the shredder first so she can begin shredding plastic that people have begun collecting for her.

Bernard has all the pieces to build the shredder, one of four machines in her mini industrial plant, but needs to find the right motor to run it. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“I will meet the people in their place, and then I will leave with my PUMP and they will be left with a sculpture that they can look at and say, ‘Wow, this was once cafeteria wares – plastic bowls and cups – and now it’s a sculpture,’ ” she said. Bernard is mostly concerned about making art with the recycled material, but “it could be turned into any number of things.”

She’s got $5,000 from the Kindling Fund and another $1,500 from the Maine Arts Commission, and is writing other grants to raise more money to complete the project.

She’s using designs and instructions that she found online to build the machines, and buying things like a motor for the shredder and an oven to heat the plastic. Otherwise she is having parts fabricated by her maker friends or making everything herself. “I want to build it so I understand how it works. If it breaks, I know how to fix it,” she said. “I am following the specs that I have found online and building it with modifications to make it portable. But I am not inventing the wheel here. I couldn’t begin to do that. I am not an engineer.”

But she is pretty bright.

She’s been an artist in residence in the physics department at Harvard University, and in 2016, she was the first artist-in-residence at the University of New England.

Kelsey Halliday Johnson, executive director of Space, said Bernard’s project represents a “new frontier” of art making because of its potential to change how artists think about the materials they use. With its foundation in science and technology, it’s also timely as Portland tries to attract more tech-sector industry to town, evidenced by the recent announcement of the establishment of Roux Institute at Northeastern University in Maine, Johnson said.

Bernard makes a sign for a recycle bin that she will ask members of the community to contribute to. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“This is an exciting time in Portland, and it’s exciting to think there are artists out there making machines for better art making,” Johnson said. “Her idea feels new and fresh.”

Part of the mission of the Kindling Fund, Johnson added, is to help artists pursue innovation in their practice while also prompting larger conversations – in this case, conversations with the community about waste and conversations with other artists about sustainable art practices. “This will revolutionize her practice, as she has proposed it. It also will have a beautiful participatory aspect and it might serve as inspiration for other artists to evaluate what they are doing, why they are doing it and where they are getting their materials,” Johnson said.

This latest iteration of Bernard’s art practice is a natural evolution of what she’s accomplished before. She’s been making art for 35 years, and since earning a master’s degree from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in 2010, her work has edged toward the boundary of science as she explores order and beauty in nature as a broad theme. She’s made interactive sculpture inspired by the laws of motion and, for another project, used her interest in quantum physics to create a series from 3,000, 1-inch ceramic balls that she arranged to suggest clusters of electrons. She’s been interested in kinetic sculpture, which meshes her interests in design, planning and execution, even if she doesn’t see herself as an engineer.

Wes LaFountain, a longtime Maine curator, plans to include Bernard in a group exhibition this summer at Cove Street Arts in Portland that will focus on artists who incorporate science and math in their artwork. “I want to put the ‘A’ in ‘STEM’ to make it ‘STEAM,'” LaFountain said, using the acronym for the popular approach to learning that is based on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. LaFountain would add arts into that mix, and sees Bernard as an example of a contemporary artist who is addressing complex global and humanitarian issues with an art-and-science approach that is focused on her community. “She is always doing something new, developing ideas,” he said. “She is so engaged with the world at large through the lens of an artist.”

The show will open June 18 and remain on view through Aug. 22. If her recycling machine is operational, Bernard will bring it to the Portland exhibition, he said.

LaFountain began showing Bernard’s art in 2007, when as a curator at Greenhut Galleries in Portland, he included her in an exhibition of 10 artists working with wax. A few years later, when he directed the museum at the University of New Hampshire, he included her art in another group exhibition, where she filled the open space between the first and second floors of the museum with hanging geometric flat discs of color. Bernard later repurposed those discs in another art project, LaFountain said. That was his first observation of Bernard reusing materials in her art.

Bernard is among a growing class of Maine artists working with recycled materials. Adriane Herman, a conceptual artist from Cape Elizabeth, makes art about the cycle of consumption, both physically and emotionally, and often programs public educational components about recycling into her installations. Ian Trask, a scientist turned artist from Topsham, collects pretty much anything people throw away – batteries, pill bottles, wine corks – and binds like material together in spores, creating art through reinterpretation and reinvention.

Many more use math and science as the basis of their work to achieve order and form, as Bernard did before she began focusing on recycled materials.

Kim Bernard’s “Clean Ocean Wave” sculpture, installed at the University of New England at Biddeford. Photo by Kim Bernard

At UNE, she collaborated with marine studies students to collect, inspect and clean trash from Maine beaches and used the trash to create “Clean Ocean Wave,” a spiral, curving vortex of trash that was installed in the marine sciences center on the Biddeford campus. She incorporated, among other things, 88 plastic bottles, 71 cans, 18 lobster trap parts, shoes, glass bottles, golf balls, shotgun shell casings, hats, a horseshoe, a plastic tarp, a kiddie pool and a CD case. There might have been a gift card in there, as well, and a dog toy. “It was very beautiful,” Bernard said. “From a distance, you could see the color and form, and then when you got closer you could see that it was made from trash – a lot of plastic trash.”

The next project was more ambitious. While still at UNE and with the help of more students, she designed and built the Amphibious Tiny House, an 8-by-16-foot floating tiny house that could be trailered and parked anywhere. It was designed and built to be off the grid with solar panels, a composting toilet, rain collection and filtration systems, a sun shower and aquaponics.

The Amphibious Tiny House, created by artist Kim Bernard and students at the University of New England. Photo by Kim Bernard

She completed the project for $15,000, and the house now resides with the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor and is used for overnight lodging, like an Airbnb, for students, faculty and guests, when it’s moored in the harbor. The plastic upcycler project evolved directly from her work at UNE. “Clean Ocean Wave” helped frame her desire to use recycled material in her art, and the Amphibious Tiny House project offered a lesson in getting a DIY project done on a shoestring budget, as well as the value of making something functional for the greater good.

Her latest project is educational and fun, she said.

“My interest in this project is making sculptural installations out of recycled material, but I’m also interested in working with communities to raise awareness about plastic consumption and have people who participated be aware of their own plastic consumption so they can reduce their own plastic consumption,” she said.

But the goal is making art, with color and form that attracts people and makes them curious about their world.

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