By Myka Burke
Artist Paul Villinski has been working with discarded debris for almost twenty years now. He began exploring waste as an artistic medium after seeking treatment for alcohol and drug addiction. In particular, the empty beer cans he would see on the streets of New York City affected him. He started collecting them and eventually created beautiful works of art with them. Villinski has been quoted as saying he is “fascinated by the simple alchemy of transforming humble, discarded materials into things of beauty and layered meaning.” Fast forward twenty years and the painter who first began exploring sculpture by extending his two dimensional paintings into three dimensional pieces by adding objects in front of the paintings is now an acclaimed sculptor with a solo retrospective exhibition at the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Virginia.
Flower Bomber and several other works of art made of recycled material were created specifically for this twenty year retrospective exhibition at the Taubman Museum of Art by Villinski and after they were loaded onto a truck outside the artist’s studio in New York City, ready to be shipped to the museum in Roanoke, Virginia – they were stolen.
Flower Bomber is a 30-foot wide scaled-to-size replica of a B-25 Bomber with the bay open and die cut flowers spilling out. It was created to hang in the stunning three-storey atrium of the Taubman Museum of Art and it took the artist roughly two years to create it. Flower Bomber is a blossom-bearing aircraft and it continues themes that the son of an Air Force navigator and Vietnam veteran has concerned himself with in the past: flight, perspective, soaring, the idea of lifting up, raising ideas to new heights and so on. His continued, dedicated use of discarded materials collected from the streets of New York City speaks to his fascination with transformation and his concern for the environment.
After the theft of Flower Bomber and since the opening of the exhibition was pending, a substitute for Flower Bomber had to be found. The equally uplifting piece Passage was chosen to grace the Taubman atrium in its place. Passage is a 33-foot wide glider plane skeleton that appears to be inhabited, intertwined with and guided by 1000 black aluminum butterflies; it is on loan from the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas and luckily, was already heading to the exhibition at the Taubman as a further focal point of this twenty year retrospective. Further, Passage nicely illustrates another central concern of Villinski’s, the close relationship between nature and humanity. The human-made aircraft is flying with the butterflies. The butterflies in Passage are made of aluminum from cans collected by canners, like those in the Oscar-nominated documentary Redemption, and the aircraft skeleton is made of wood collected from the streets of New York City.
Surprisingly, just before the re-curated solo retrospective exhibition opened at the Taubman Museum of Art, the stolen truck was recovered. Villinski was at the Taubman Museum helping install the exhibition when the police sought permission from the artist to unload the truck. Naturally, he agreed. The art was still crated up in the truck, buried under hundreds of old tires. It is presumed that a business tasked with the disposal of old tires stole the truck only to load it up with old tires and dump it. This type of crime is apparently quite common in New York City and referred to by police as illegal dumping.
The tragic irony of a truck filled with art made of discarded objects being stolen to illegally dispose of further unwanted items was not lost on the artist who also pointed out that, additionally, his work attempts to reach for the sky; and there it was, buried under things that have only ever touched the ground their entire lives. Villinski fittingly noted that “it is fraught in all kinds of interesting ways.”
The new date for Flower Bomber’s debut at the Taubman Museum of Art was pushed back to February 9th, 2018. When asked, Villinski did say that he would likely incorporate the story of the recovery into the new exhibition somehow, but was unsure of how exactly he might do that.
Amy Moorefield, the exhibition curator, speculates that the theft of Vilinski’s art for the purposes of illegal dumping will affect his work for years to come. A big fan, Moorefield had been wanting to work with Paul Villinski for years. She carries around a little black book with the names of artists she would love to work with and Villinski was very high up on her list. She knows his work very well. Though all did not go according to plan for the summer 2017 show at the Taubman Museum of Art, she was thankful that the twenty year retrospective exhibition was still able to happen. “The silver lining is that people now have a new opportunity to encounter Villinski’s work here at the Taubman - a new opportunity to see fascinating work by an inspiring environmental artist.”
What: Paul Villinski’s Flower Bomber
Where: City of Roanoke Atrium in the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Virginia
When: February 9, 2018 - July 12, 2020
Myka Burke is a two-time recipient of the
Canadian Ethnic Media Association Award for Radio Excellence, a Peabody Award
nominee in the Documentary Category and an internationally published doctoral
student with the University of Leipzig’s Herder Institute. She is currently
based in Ottawa and likes to write about arts and culture . Her favourite band
is Rusted Root. You can hear her on the radio Saturday mornings and catch her
on CTV Ottawa Morning Live for CHIN Radio Thursday mornings, the rest of the
time she can be found in the library or at an event. Myka Burke founded
Artspace613 in 2016.