Art professor turns others’ trash into her art

Sarah Lack

It all began with plastic shopping bags littered along the side of the road.

Lorri Ott began noticing the vibrant pieces of plastic during her commute to Kent.

“It was early spring, and it was still gray, and I was noticing all these colorful plastic bags in this really gray Ohio landscape,” Ott said. “As a painter, you see this beautiful saturated color surrounded by gray ground and think, ‘oh, that’s exciting.’”

Though many would see those plastic shopping bags as litter, Ott was so fascinated that she began to photograph and videotape them.

“When cars would go by, they would fill up with air and then deflate,” Ott said. “The light would shine through them and they would glow, and then it would rain and they would be sad and heavy with water.”

Ott, Kent State assistant professor and local contemporary artist, used the plastic bags as the inspiration for her work, which will be featured in a solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland that opens January 28.

An alumna of the School of Art, where she received her Master of Fine Arts in painting, Ott spent years developing her own unique process when working with material and color.

“I wanted to invent my own way of working,” Ott said. “I started playing with a clear plastic material that’s actually liquid when you start working with it. So here’s this clear material and I get to make my own colors with it, which is really fun. So I started experimenting.”

The results are 3-D works of solid resin that incorporate color and found objects (like plastic bags) to create a compelling experience for the viewer.

Ott has been working with her self-developed process for the past five years, and in that time, her work has matured into something that caught the eye of the team of curators from MOCA Cleveland.

Her exhibition is part of the museum’s Pulse Exhibition Series, which began in 1998 as a way to feature the work of emerging and established artists from northeast Ohio. Ott is the 16th artist to be featured in the Pulse series.

Megan Lykins Reich, director of education and associate curator at MOCA Cleveland, has followed Ott’s work since 2006, when she accompanied another curator on a visit to Ott’s studio as a part of the Nesnadny + Schwartz Visiting Curator Program.

“I had seen Lorri’s work in an exhibition in the region. It was curious, so I went on the studio visit and met her, and got to know her work,” Lykins Reich said. “After that, Lorri invited me back to her studio a couple of times in the next few years to see how the work was progressing, and I was impressed by the fact that every time I came to the studio, her work was developing in intriguing ways.”

After seeing some of Ott’s recent work in a gallery exhibit in September 2009, Lykins Reich felt it had matured enough to warrant a solo exhibition at the museum.

“Lorri expressed to me that she was really trying to make something ugly. Ironically, by trying to make something ugly, I think she’s made some of her most beautiful work,” Lykins Reich said. “The idea was inserting these human emotions, and the symbolism that’s associated with these qualities, into the work. There’s a rawness that’s really lovely, and the work is very delicate. Inserting that human emotion brought it to another level.”

Even though she has spent nearly seven months preparing for the exhibit, Ott said that she still feels like she’s floating on a cloud.

“I’ve been very low-key about it, and people are just now finding out,” Ott said. “It’s just important to me that I focus on the work itself. It’s huge and it’s scary, but I’m very excited and very honored to be showing there.”

You can contact Sarah Lack at [email protected].