story by Sue Kiyabu
photo by Eli Baxter
Every year, Honolulu’s McCully Bike Shop gives away hundreds of spent bicycle inner tubes. “They’ve always been something that people want,” says the store’s manager, Ali Kessner. Swimmers and paddlers use the tubes for training. Fitness enthusiasts use them when they exercise. Truck owners use them as bungee cords. But it was a first when a young artist walked in hoping to collect hundreds for a conceptual art project.
That artist was Eli Baxter. She got the tubes and then got busy, twisting, wrapping and shredding, weaving, slicing and polishing. Some inner tubes sprouted into flowers. Some were cut to look like vines. Pieces made from thicker rubber captured the fetish-y appeal of Jean-Paul Gautier garments. Some pieces took on an anthropomorphic quality: shredded tubes wound into a head-sized ball that sported horn-shaped appendages resembled, uh … an all-black Muppet wearing a Viking helmet?
“I like to think that there is a sense of humor about them,” grins Baxter. “There is that kind of hard edge, but I also try to make them look more organic and sometimes even humorous.”
The pieces, with names like “slither” and “thrix” and “florous,” wound up in the hallowed confines of Honolulu’s Contemporary Museum as part of this year’s biennial of Hawai‘i artists. So why inner tubes? “Half of the recycled object challenge is, what can you do with it?” says Baxter. “How can you change it? And sometimes you don’t change it, you put it right into a piece, but then it’s the context that’s changed.”
Baxter is all about mining and transforming the detritus of our modern lives. She began her work with found objects a decade ago while living in the Netherlands and graduated with her MFA from the University of Hawai‘i in 2006. These days her studio is a dumpster diver’s treasure trove: There’s a pile of antique lace, three extra-large band saw blades, a wonky mountain of yet more inner tubes. She digs through a drawer of cast-off valves, holding up a shiny stainless steel tube for inspection like a professor on a dig. She grabs a wax-and-granite piece and notes that if it doesn’t sell, she’ll take it apart and recycle it. “So I guess,” she says with another grin, “that’s a recycle of a recycle.” HH