Pondering pollution with artist Susan Goethel Campbell's "Portraits of Air"


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Visitors to the annual Three Rivers Arts Festival expect to find colorful prints and paintings, but some went home over the weekend with blank sheets of white paper in dollar-store frames.

Or so it appeared.

In reality, the papers were air filters made of spun glass. The visitors agreed to hang them in places where they suspect the air is full of particulates from dust, smoke, pollen, soot or other sources. They would write the location and date on thin paper on top of the filters, thus leaving an impression in the spun glass. And those impressions would collect the markings of pollution over time.

If they move the filter, they write another location and date. In the end, they wind up with a portrait of the air around them.

That, in fact, is the name of project by artist Susan Goethel Campbell of Detroit, who was distributing the frames: "Portraits of Air: Pittsburgh."

Participants will send photos of their filters in place to Ms. Campbell. After nine months, they will send her the dirty filters. Next spring, the project will culminate in an exhibit at 709 Gallery, Downtown. The show will include a reading of the filters' inscribed places and dates, so that it comes across as a poem.

"It's up to the participants to create the narrative," Ms. Campbell said Sunday in her booth next to the Dollar Bank stage while the band that was playing took a break. "I hope they will get very creative in where they put them."

The narrative might be along the lines of, "Under the bed on Second Street," "Next to the barbecue pit on July 4th weekend," or "On my car bumper."

The project calls for 100 air filters to be distributed and collected. The artist gave out 65 on Saturday. Of the 35 remaining Sunday, she was thinking of holding some back for schools after a few teachers expressed interest in participating as a class project.

"I'm finding it's a wonderful way to get people to think about what's unseen in their environment without making any judgments," she said. "It's not doom and gloom. Almost everyone knows air pollution is a problem. They're not interested in being lectured.

"But if you create something that asks them to pay attention and think about what's around them and how air moves, it's a way to keep them engaged."

Veronica Corpuz, festival director of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, said Ms. Campbell's work was seen in Detroit by Alice Snyder, co-chair of the festival's advisory board, who told her about the artist.

"We were both captivated by Susan's print work on weather phenomena," she said, and together they developed the concept for the year-long Pittsburgh project.

Ms. Corpuz said she was excited by the participatory nature of the project. "It engages the public very directly as co-creators," she said.

Photos of the filters will be accessible at airportraits.tumblr.com, and, starting in July, at Ms. Campbell's website, presshereprojects.com.

She has done air portraits twice before, but this is the biggest project so far.

The first one, in 2010, distributed 24 filters in seven countries, including China, Germany and Belgium. That one was called "Dirty Pictures: Portraits of Air," but Ms. Campbell said the title led to pornographic spam so she changed it. The second one, in New York, was even smaller but is still ongoing.

She also did an environmental art project in 2011 called "Cloudspotting Detroit," creating a tourist brochure with a biking map and the best places for viewing the sky. It features three categories of clouds -- natural, man-made and artistic -- from paintings in the Detroit Institute of Art.

She even led a cloud-spotting tour based on the guide, including an explanation of the underground steam tunnels and their leaks in the winter.

"I'm very interested in looking at what's present in any environment without pointing the finger," the artist said.

"We're living in a time where we're pulled away from the here and now by technology. Just simple observation makes people pay attention. It's up to the individual to notice that gosh, my kitchen has a lot of particulate matter."

Air Portraits: Pittsburgh is a "bare-bones project," Ms. Campbell said, costing about $6,000 for the filter, frames, exhibit and her trip here. Funding came from the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and the Breathe Project of the Heinz Endowments -- breatheproject.org -- a multi-year campaign aimed at reducing air pollution that is unhealthy but largely unseen.

"Even though the air has improved so much, there's still a lot of work to be done," she said. "The creative isn't always practical, but it can lead to practical solutions."

region - artarchitecture

Sally Kalson: skalson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1610.


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