With 10,000 pipe cleaners, Ginger Ertz can make magic.
The Schenectady-based artist manipulates and bends chenille stems into shapes that mimic sea creatures, rocks and turbid seas.
"The chenille stems lend themselves to curly kind of forms. I tend to be a curvilinear person. I have really, really curly hair, which is now white. A lot of people think this work reminds them of my hair," said Ertz, who is the museum educator at the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs.
Ertz will show a mix of her recent work in a solo exhibition opening Saturday at the Lake George Arts Project Courthouse Gallery in Lake George.
Pipe cleaners have been the focus of Ertz's art since 2003, when an educational session with a group of Girl Scouts at the Tang proved to be an unexpected twist of fate.
"They were working on their sculpture badge, and
we were working with chenille stems on a project
based on an artist's work. While I was working with the Girl Scouts, my hands fell in love with the medium," she said.
She soon placed an order for 10,000 pipe cleaners with a distributor in Illinois, and she has been a regular customer ever since.
Although the unconventional material is most often used in children's crafts, Ertz has developed an artistry to sculpting with the bristly wires.
"I was figuring it out as I went along. When I look at work from then to now, you can see a steady progression of my hands learning what the material can do," she said.
Earlier sculptures, like a chandelier made of 10,000 pipe cleaners that hung at both Albany International Airport and Proctors in Schenectady, were monochromatic.
"For a long time I worked in only white ones," she said.
More recent work has taken advantage of the full color spectrum of the medium.
Inspired by the natural world around her, the artist has been working with grays and earth tones to create rock forms and blues and purples to represent water.
A babbling brook, made from chenille stems, ripples and splashes across a rocky creek bed in a recent piece that will stretch across 7 feet of the gallery.
"I have always loved to look at water moving. I get mesmerized," Ertz said. "I also love hills and mountains. There is a lot of that contour going on in my work. That's what my eyes like to feast on in nature."
Smaller pieces, some incorporating the mesh liner often used in kitchen cabinets, resemble living organisms.
"People think of them as things you might find living in or under the water. They are pretty abstract, shell-like creatures," Ertz said.
Although an individual pipe cleaner is flimsy, Ertz said the chenille stems are surprisingly strong when interwoven. The stems themselves serve as the only support structure in most of her pieces.
"The wire from the chenille for the most part is enough because I build it up so much. They are so tightly woven or coiled that there's enough metal in it that it holds up. Huge pieces might collapse under their own weight," she said.
Although the work has a softness from the chenille pile, the structures are far from fragile.
"I think they are extremely durable. For the most part, you could drop them off the roof and they would look the same when they landed," Ertz said.
As a sculptor, Ertz has found the pipe cleaners have one practical advantage over many more traditional materials.
"The other day, I delivered four good-sized sculptures, and I could carry them at one time," she said. "I used to weld steel. This is a lot easier to move around."