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Driftwood Art Project Earns Money to Plant Trees in Covington

Brad McCombs walks the banks of the Ohio River, taking in the scenery.

Boats pass by and the Schiff Professor of Art in the Department of Visual Arts connects to the soul of the river.

“I look out at the skyline of our city and river and think how magnificent it is,” Brad says. “Other times, I look down and see all the plastic bottles and random trash that has collected on the banks and think our community could do much better.” 

So he created the Driftwood Institute, an ongoing NKU Ecological Stewardship Institute initiative that combines education, creativity and ecology to naturally beautify the riverbank and transform it into a more ecologically sound place while serving as a model of trans-disciplinary research. 

“After creating a documentary that explored the issues and problems of erosion along Covington, I wanted to find some solutions,” Brad says. “So I created the Driftwood Institute to help the community engage, understand and transform our riverbanks and watershed.”

Two pieces of art that came from a joint effort between Brad and 26-year-old NKU senior Ecological Stewardship Institute scholar Matthew Shackelford were part of the 10th Annual Art off Pike event Sept. 28 in Covington.

The six-foot driftwood horses created by the pair towered among the creative works over the weekend and they brought in more than $1,000 to plant trees in Covington. The project also received the Best of Show award and the People's Choice Award at Art Off Pike.

Like Brad, Matthew has an interest in conservation. He transferred to NKU as a biology major, but quickly discovered the need to go another direction. The new media art program Brad coordinates was the right fit.

“I was in biology because of my interest in conservation, but after some deep mental processing decided that I'd pursue my cause in a less linear way,” Matthew says. “I've been working in the video field since I was around 14 when I bought my first camera so when I heard about the new media art program I decided I would do that. After meeting with Candice van Loveren Geis, the first-year and transfer adviser in visual arts, I learned that Brad was coordinator of the new media program. I met with him and let him know I was dead set on the major and through advising appointments, he came to learn of my interests and asked if I would like to be involved with the Driftwood Institute.”

Matthew’s first project was an acting role for a video designed to educate the public on river health and safe environmental practices where he played a dinosaur in a tuxedo.

“The project was crazy enough to my liking so I stayed on, and now we're working more sculpturally,” Matthew says.

The sculpture process begins on the banks of the Ohio and Licking rivers.

“This week we found a mannequin head, an open safe, and luggage among some beautiful pieces of driftwood and lots of Styrofoam and plastic,” Brad says.   

“The process of creating driftwood art varies. Sometimes a piece of wood speaks to me, saying this looks like an eye or a leg or has a compelling form. Other times, it is about matching color and hue to build on a more established design or blueprint. The exciting part is the variation and puzzle of putting the pieces together. I really enjoy the challenge of the material. No two pieces are alike and all the final works will be one of a kind.”

Sometimes Brad and Matt start with an idea for a piece of art — perhaps a table or a piece of furniture. Others times, they let the driftwood guide them.

“Driftwood pieces tend to have such a unique shape that as we're collecting them, the imagination can take us places just by looking at what we pick up,” Matthew says. “For example, Brad or I can pick up a piece and look at it for a minute and say to the other, ‘This could be the eye of some animal,’ and we put it in the bucket. We collect other pieces just knowing that they'll fit somewhere, somehow. The process tends to be very fluid though in the back of our minds we have a plan of action.”

Much planning follows, including lying out and disinfecting the driftwood, and gluing, nailing and screwing pieces together. The result is beautiful art and a more beautiful riverbank.

“This had a deep and personal effect on me, and I've since become a bit of an environmentalist,” Matthew says. “Collecting wood from the riverbanks has been an eye-opener for me in that I can pay firsthand witness to the massive level of littering that happens daily here. I believe that most people are aware of the issues urban areas have with litter and pollution, but not necessarily the extent of the issues. This project is geared to at least starting the dialogue in letting people become more aware of the issues that we can resolve as a community.”

Through video, new media art, and ecological initiatives, Brad and his students are engaging the public about watershed ecology, and are uniquely turning a problem into a solution.

“Imagine a riverbank that highlights the ecology of our river and connects the public to understanding our watershed, while keeping the banks clean and free of debris,” Brad says. “We can make this happen with the Driftwood Institute.”

Written by Tom Ramstetter, NKU Marketing & Communication

Photo provided