Alumna navigates climate change through art, wit
Gnomes are known as symbols of good luck, often adding a bit of quaintness and a connection to a time farmers believed their charms could help fields yield more produce.
But for interdisciplinary artist and activist Maxine Leu '20g (Sculpture), the tiny creatures help tell a story through art – blending the themes of identity and environment with just the right amount of whimsy and activism to inspire change.
“I use the garden gnome to communicate what I see and feel about environmental issues in a humorous way,” said Leu, a Taiwanese immigrant. “No one knows where these mini environmentalists come from and go to, but they leave the land clean.”
Last spring, Leu debuted the contemporary art piece known as “The Eco Wanderers” for a special exhibit called PLAY at the Staatsgalerie, an art museum in Stuttgart, Germany. There, patrons of the museum were treated to this international art exhibit, which included Leu's whimsical gnomes that originally stemmed from her graduate thesis When Gnomes Need to Clean Their Homes at SUNY New Paltz.
The nomadic installation reminds people of the environmental problem of pollution caused by overconsumption and disregard for the environment. The exhibition is inspired by Leu’s concern over the amount of litter she saw in the United States as well as her experience as a Taiwanese immigrant finding home in an unknown place.
"The litter-picking garden gnome I created is like an immigrant," she said. "It's from my own feelings and how I'm trying to adapt to the culture here. These gnomes do similar things with a faint sadness when it comes to seeing the lack of care for the environment as I do.”
The mysterious garden gnomes were created by Leu from repurposed materials and they pop up randomly in public areas to clean up the streets and then they disappear. While each has a unique personality and posture, they are all activists, janitors, volunteers and immigrants.
Much of Leu’s work focuses on the environment, communication, and identity. She covers themes from upcycling and recycling to global warming, waste production, and other environmental issues.
Leu’s ironic sense of humor helps showcase her passions beyond the Gnomes project and includes the use of Plady, a contemporary mummy made from hundreds of plastic bags worn in supermarkets. The suit signifies the large amount of plastic consumed each year and is s meant to make a statement about attitudes toward recycling in the U.S. while being unexpected and playful.
"I was thinking about how we can let people know about our overuse of plastic products,” she said. “Recycling is not a perfect solution."
Plady has been on display at Environmental Act cooperative art performances such as The Bags, The Earth Action- Two Hour Collection, Global Climate Strike and The Story of Water. Locally, Plady made an appearance next at the Earth Fest in Warwick, New York, a spring arts festival featuring recycled works of art.
Leu uses these displays to encourage the audience to think more deeply about the relationship between consumption and pollution, a personally held value, and one that continued to grow during her time at the College.
According to Leu, sculpture classes with Associate Professor Emily Puthoff and Lecturer Michael Asbill strongly supported the eco-conscious but humorous direction her art has taken.
"When something you do can inspire critique, it's great to have a conversation about it," she said. “Their eco-consciousness, valuable comments, and immense knowledge and experience with public arts and community engagement work have enriched my artwork."