By Lilly Milman
Sebastian Chaloner showcased his “Powerhouse” exhibit — a series of three biodegradable sculptures built from wood and moss — for the first time at the Afternoon at Alderworks event in Dyea on Aug. 10.
Chaloner was one of three people hosted by Jeff Brady at his Alderworks summer residency program, where he spent four weeks crafting his sculptures in the woods on Brady’s property. Originally from Wales, a country in the U.K. west of England, Chaloner now resides in London where he is a graphic design and illustration professor at the University of Hertfordshire.
He was inspired to create the temporary works by a tour of Dyea, where he saw the remains of old wooden buildings from the former town.
“You can see how kind of nature basically reclaimed the entire space,” Chaloner said. “In the U.K., if we have a relic like that with historical meaning, we’d stick it in some formaldehyde and preserve it so it lasted forever. … I liked the way that people in Skagway seem to just say, ‘if nature wants it, it can have it.’ There’s something quite lovely about that.”
The titular piece in the exhibit is a sculpture in the shape of a factory, with ropes for powerlines connecting it to nearby trees. Moss picked from around the property and West Creek covers bundles of decaying wood wrapped together by twine, creating a one-dimensional silhouette. Chaloner said he has already noticed small animals and birds burrowing into the moss and creating their own habitat inside. The sculpture is a visual metaphor for a factory, which looks simple on the outside but is filled with many moving parts all working together, he said.
“Little birds have started even flying into it and making little nests,” he said. “We’ll see how nature adapts to it. Will it grow? Will nature take its course where it becomes like a habitat for animals? The most interesting part of it is mimicking what I loved about seeing Dyea’s town break down slowly.”
The second sculpture in the series is called Four Chimneys, which is four conical chimney-like shapes seemingly sprouting from the ground. Similar to the Powerhouse sculpture, the chimneys also represent the similarities between nature and industry.
The final piece in the exhibit is Lunch Time — a large, moss-covered knife that appears to be stuck through the trunk of a tree, which is a nod to how living organisms are feeding on the decaying matter used to craft the sculpture, Chaloner said.
Chaloner said his initial curiosity with Alaska stemmed from his older brother Dominic, who researched salmon and freshwater ecosystems in Southeast Alaska for about a decade. When his brother visited him in Skagway, they built a small irrigation system together to keep the moss alive on the sculptures — a precaution that would not have been necessary if not for climate change and the unseasonably dry summer, Dominic told Sebastian.
The relationship between environmental conservation and art is now at the forefront of Sebastian’s work and he said he would like to recreate something similar in London using moss native to the region. While Chaloner has created art in a variety of mediums throughout his career, this was his first time experimenting with biodegradable art. One of his inspirations moving forward is Andy Goldsworthy, a British artist and environmentalist known for his natural works.
“Maybe as artists, we should take a sacrifice,” Chaloner said. “We’ve got enough oil paintings. Why don’t we try something a little bit different? Why don’t we look at kind of new ways of making art and forms of expression that aren’t going to affect the environment?’”
Chaloner left Skagway on Aug. 11 and will return to his teaching position in London after a brief stay in Vancouver. He hopes to return to Skagway by 2021 to create more art.
The exhibit will be open until the sculptures naturally break down. Anyone interested in viewing the sculptures can contact Jeff Brady at Alderworks Alaska.