Local artist hopes project builds community
The idea started with two bottles. One filled with Gatorade, the other filled with water.
“The lightbulb went off,” artist Wes Eary said, after he put the water bottle through a chain link fence outside his Bigley Avenue studio.
The 29-year-old, born and raised in Charleston, will start installing his latest project entitled “Stained water windows” next week at Hajoca, a commercial and industrial plumbing and heating supply company on West Washington Street.
Eary is filling 27,000 water bottles with food coloring, rain water and tap water to send a simple message to the city’s residents and visitors: Our future is now.
Motivated by the Jan. 9 chemical leak that left 300,000 Kanawha Valley residents without water and created a period of several weeks now referred to as “the water crisis,” Eary said he wants his project to engage the community at large and encourage people to work together.
“Our town has a tendency to just let its situations kind of overtake us, and we just kind of assume that it will fix itself and just go about our day. And I’m tired of that,” Eary said. “Charleston … has a lot of potential, has a lot of heart, a lot of passionate people. … All these water bottles kind of almost reflect all the people here. And the more people that contribute to this, the bigger it becomes. And we are taking something from such a horrible situation and turning it into something very beautiful.”
Eary put together a similar project in April in a “local neighborhood” he declined to name. Those 1,000 bottles were taken down by the city just a few days after he put them up.
“The whole thing was ridiculous,” Eary said of that first attempt. “It was three months of work that I put in for three days. Then it was taken down. But it didn’t bother me, though, because all I wanted was a visual so I could show somebody what I was talking about.”
The prototype led him to success. Eary pitched the idea to West Side Main Street, an economic development group that focuses on revitalizing the city’s Washington Street West corridor, which then helped him find a site for the piece. Director Stephanie Johnson said the project is exciting.
“I think Wes kind of picked up on the art installations we have going on on the West Side and how incredibly unique they are,” Johnson said of the neighborhood’s public art projects.
If all goes well, Johnson said, Eary’s installation could become an evolving annual art piece.
“It has the potential to be something that people are really looking forward to and guessing, ‘What will the message be this year,’” Johnson said.
Eary has about 9,000 water bottles, and is looking for 18,000 more 16.9-ounce bottles with labels removed. He also needs four rain barrels for the project.
Working with Hajoca has been one of the best experiences Eary has had as an artist, he said. Employees at the site are lending a hand by moving Eary’s rain barrels — which will catch water to fill some of the bottles — and allowing him to store the bottles on site.
“It couldn’t have happened at a better place,” Eary said.
Hajoca manager Bud Corley said he wanted to help Eary and West Side Main Street make the neighborhood more attractive. Eary’s project seemed like the way to do it.
“It was very attractive, all different colors of bottles is what it is,” Corley said of Eary’s first installation. “Once it’s put up and the light hits it, on the Internet it looked very great, very beautiful.”
Art has been a journey for Eary. His father introduced him to art at a very young age and, “The way my mom talks about it, the way that when I would touch paper, you would think that fireworks were being shot out of my body,” Eary said.
Eary’s need to create is strong, but there was a period of time after high school when he stopped. The Capital High School graduate, once a sought-after football player, was in a car accident his junior year that left his punting ankle twisted all the way around.
“It totally set me back,” said of the accident, his limited mobility and the scholarships that disappeared.
Eary stopped making art and started partying.
“I did what any fun-loving 18-year-old would do with $48,000,” Eary said.
He had a run at Concord University, but flunked out because he “was letting the party come first.”
Fast forward some years later, and Eary got the opportunity to return to school by way of funding from the state’s Division of Rehabilitation Services. It was at West Virginia State University, from which he graduated last year, where he took his first studio art classes.
“I was so scared to pick up a pencil,” Eary said.
But soon the fire was back, and Eary couldn’t stop experimenting. Any medium — drawing, printmaking, painting, photography — Eary did, and still does, it all.
An installation piece in which he built a portion of a bathroom and filled it with a wave of empty pill bottles (representing addiction, something Eary said he once struggled with) was a milestone, Eary said. The response from his classmates and viewers was overwhelming.
“I used to think I couldn’t make art that spoke to people, but I think if you just dig down deep into your soul, your heart until you’re sweating, your hands are bleeding and your heart is just racing, and you are creating from that, it’s going to be so true,” Eary said.
The water crisis has changed people in Charleston, Eary said. Trust is lacking, and he sees that frequently in his job as a server in a local restaurant. While he once thought asking for bottled over tap water was “snooty,” now “they have every right to ask.”
“People, they’re tired,” Eary said of residents after the water crisis. “Their moods are totally different. They give up easier. I feel like people are [angry], so they left. People were definitely hurt by it. And once you break somebody’s trust, it’s hard to gain back.”
But, Eary said that hurt can be repaired, and he hopes the installation will help.
“I’m not saying that I’m going to save the city by making water bottle art. But it’s showing how to take something acquired from a horrible incident and making the most out of it,” Eary said.
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Originally published at www.wvgazettemail.com on August 30, 2014.