When Bart Vargas was an art student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in the 1990s, he also worked a night detail as a custodian at UNO’s Milo Bail Student Center.
Being an art student is expensive, Vargas explained, what with the paints and pencils and other specialty items necessary to hone the craft, and as he worked night after night emptying trash cans and picking up refuse, something began to dawn on him.
“There were literally thousands of pounds of trash being thrown away out of there every day,” he said. “And as a starving artist at the time, I said, ‘Hey, this stuff is free and there’s a constant stream of it.’”
And thus began Vargas’ career in the medium of trash. For 15 years, he’s used materials other people toss away without a second thought to create marvelous pieces of the first order, each with their own bent and statement.
Friday at the Fontenelle Forest Nature Center, Vargas, a Bellevue native and 1991 graduate of Bellevue West High School, unveiled his latest project, effected with the help of three metro-area youth organizations: Bottle Forest.
Bottle Forest is a trio of trees created from green plastic bottles rescued from First Star Recycling, fastened to old cardboard globes, creating each tree’s branch system, which is a nearly perfectly rounded ball. Each tree’s trunk is a core from a carpet roll that Vargas salvaged from a dumpster outside the Holland Performing Arts Center in downtown Omaha during a recent renovation.
The art installation is just another way Fontenelle Forest is putting its own spin on the Smithsonian-inspired Green Revolution exhibit that is currently inhabiting the Nature Center.
“We wanted to do something different with the exhibit,” said Brad Watkins, director of communications at Fontenelle Forest. “We’ve put a lot of emphasis on the scientific aspects of nature and environmental awareness. This was a new way to go with that and the kids really took to it.”
Vargas, who is Fontenelle Forest’s artist-at-large, conducted six weeks’ worth of workshops with the three youth organizations involved: Girls Inc., Arts for All and Completely Kids.
Each group designed their own tree and also helped with the “leaf litter” that sits on the platform upon which the trees stand. The “leaves,” roughly pin oak in their shape, are made from a die-cutter at the forest and are made of paper and also green plastic bottle.
While Vargas has made “bottle balls” before, he’s never tried to turn them into trees.
“It was a really easy translation into trees,” he said. “To use a pun, it kind of developed organically.”
Leading the workshops, Vargas highlighted the uses of nature in art and used the art itself to explain several different issues arising from the project. It was a recalibration of a lesson Vargas himself learned in his UNO days and again in graduate school at the University of Minnesota.
The Bottle Forest, just in its display, he said, is saying something about the throw-away world in which we live, as well as standing out as a piece of beauty composed of discarded materials.
“Art is one of those things that can explain just about any subject,” he said. “I didn’t think a lot about the statement I was making when I first started working with trash. But as I neared the end of my time as an undergrad, you had to justify why you were doing what you were doing. There had to be a reason you used these materials. We talked a lot about that.”
Bottle Forest will be on display at the Fontenelle Forest Nature Center through Oct. 31. After that, it will likely go on tour among the three youth organizations responsible for its creation.
When the tour is over, Watkins said he’s not sure what will happen.
“We may keep it, we may recycle it, we may auction it off,” he said.
“There’s a lot of potential there,” Vargas added.