BENNINGTON — Marie Lorenz loves to look for trash.
Not because she wants to convey a political message about our wasteful society (though she does cast into ceramic sculptures things like plastic bottles and takeout containers) and not because she wants to advocate against pollution (though she does make paper prints using oil slicks), but because trash, in all its unsettling abundance, is real.
"When I use the garbage, it's easy to see that as, 'Oh, it's so terrible we've polluted the environment,'" Lorenz said. "It's more about living in the world we made, fully. I think we are more at one with our being when we're at the landfill."
Lorenz, 46, doesn't go to the landfill proper to search out litter and her own, existential wholeness. Instead, she combs beaches and explores islands in her handmade boats as she floats and rows — and, during the infrequent emergency, swims — down urban waterways.
Next month, she'll continue this quest and set out along the Hoosic River for New York City, in culmination of her art installation, "Waterways," at Bennington College, and a class she taught there this past semester.
Lorenz plans to put in somewhere near the Bennington area and wash westward until she intersects with the Hudson River in Stillwater, N.Y. From there, the goal is to float and row down to New York City, where she lives, camping out for several nights along the way.
In addition to displaying three of her boats and five of her videos documenting past trips at the Suzanne Lemberg Usdan Gallery, Lorenz set up a cascading series of white tables in the shape of the local watershed.
After painting a map on its surface, Lorenz used this "water table" to both prepare for her journey and to teach a class at Bennington College. Over two weekends this past spring, students with concentrations in visual arts, environmental studies and public action contributed research to the "water table" from readings, assignments and field trips to nearby riverbanks.
On a Saturday in April, for example, Lorenz led the class to the western edge of campus, down the Short Aldrich Trail and through the woods to the edge of the Paran Creek. There they made notes, photographed, drew, questioned and collected observations: water flowing beneath the National Hanger Company building; a rusty saw blade; a bunch of tiny white pieces of plastic found sitting in a bucket.
To reach their findings, students slid down muddy slopes, dug through scrap piles, tiptoed around discarded glass and pushed their way through purplish pricker bushes. Everyone had little in the way of gear, and one student managed in a pair of black, fluffy slipper sandals.
Sitting on a mossy rock, watching the creek crest over a dam and sketching in the sun, junior Emily O'Donnell said the class was a new kind of college experience, one that got beyond the classroom.
"This is probably the most immersive thing I've done," she said.
Immersion in the world — in both its curiosity and discomfort — was Anne Thompson's goal when she asked Lorenz to teach students at Bennington College. Thompson, who is the director and curator of the Usdan Gallery, met Lorenz when both women were graduate students at Yale School of Art.
In the two decades since, Thompson said she has admired Lorenz's work, so much so that she agreed to be Lorenz's co-pilot for the journey down the Hoosic and Hudson rivers.
"When I think about things that are interesting to me as a curator, they're not things that are confined to an interior space," Thompson said.
Lorenz has never been one for interior or confined spaces. She grew up in a military family that moved every couple years, and she has memories of everyone going camping all together: Lorenz; her father, Frederick; her mother, Joan; and her older brother, Matt.
Lorenz also has photos of herself as a baby, curled up in a motorboat as her father took her out on the water.
"He taught me to sail," she said.
Lorenz started building her own boats as a student at the Rhode Island School of Design in the early 1990s. The city of Providence was in the process of opening up its canals, and she wanted to explore those previously unseen places.
"The first boat I made was out of sheet metal," Lorenz recalled with a laugh. "It floated."
Over time, her boats grew more sophisticated. She started making them from plywood, covering its ribs in canvas and sealing it with roofing pitch. She also went to boat building school, where, she said, she learned to use timber and create 1,000-pound vessels intended to last for 100 years.
Nowadays, Lorenz buys boat plans from companies like Chesapeake Light Craft or finds them online for free, and she adapts them for her art and trash-questing purposes. Instead of timber, she favors plywood, fiberglass and silk-screened exteriors.
"I make it lighter and cheaper and easier to build," Lorenz said. On the ground level of the Bushwick building she also owns and lives in, she constructs these models in her studio. They often take her a month or less to build. They weigh just 100 pounds — not too heavy for her to lift —and last for about a year.
"If a boat builder saw this, they would, like, disown me," she said.
This doesn't seem to matter much to Lorenz, though, who is used to launching herself — and her handmade boats — into unconventional waters, such as New York Harbor.
"If you think about public space in New York City, it's really limited," Lorenz said. "There's a lot of water."
That's why she began The Tide and Current Taxi in 2005. For about two weeks every summer for the past 14 years, Lorenz has offered a rowboat passenger service through New York City's public, under-accessed waterways.
"Cities are so sort of regulated, and your behavior is dictated by where you are," she said. "But in the water, your behavior is unregulated."
This is partly due to the fact that Lorenz lets the tidal current determine her destination, an approach that has sunk her boat exactly one time.
"There's probably been over 300 people out in the boat, and only one of them had to swim," she said.
Lorenz did capsize while alone in a sailboat off the coast of Italy in the Mediterranean Sea. After a frantic, deadly moment in which a hook on her life jacket became tangled in a cable line, she let herself be pulled underwater so she could release herself and escape. She rescued an expensive camera her father had given her by holding it in her mouth, and it wasn't until later that she discovered it had been recording.
In the 7-minute video, the viewer can hear Lorenz's labored breathing as she swims back to shore. In the meantime, the tipped-over boat is visible, bobbing beneath an overcast sky between the rise and fall of green waves.
This event, which happened during a 2008 fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, is perhaps the most extreme example of what Lorenz intends to perform as she makes boats, looks for trash and explores urban waterways both across world and right here in Bennington. While she doesn't want to repeat the experience of nearly drowning, she doesn't want to avoid the adversity of being out in the world, either.
"I enjoy the arduousness of it because it kind of peaks your perception," Lorenz said. "[It] increases your awareness of the things that are really profound about it."
Elodie Reed is a freelance writer and frequent contibutor to the Bennington Banner.