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    The river is a story that holds many stories, ones we wish to forget. Cigarette lighters, tennis shoes, Styrofoam, jugs, an enormous stuffed gorilla, action figures missing limbs. We wanted rid of all of these. Instead the river smoothed them, saturated them with the stink of fish, washed away the color of a baby doll’s eyes and filled its ears with sand. And then it returned them to us.

    Al Gorman got his masters in drawing at the University of Cincinnati, but his medium these days is river trash. Take a look at his Instagram page — the existential handle, @artistatexit0, a nod to the exit you take off the highway on the Indiana side to get to the Falls of the Ohio — to see his handiwork. He arranges those cigarette lighters into bright spectrums, builds wide spirals of flip-flops in the sand, turns Styrofoam into torsos, branches into limbs. Where you see fishing lures, he sees eyes. Where you see the sole of a shoe, he sees a bird’s wing. Some of this work has been displayed in galleries (Gorman works at the Carnegie Center in New Albany), but most of it stays outside. As we peruse the litter one day in June, he stops to take a photo of a vulture — he seems to know the names of all the native (and non-native) species, including the little mussels dead near iridescent pools of oil — perched on the branch of a tree upended by the current. I ask him if he feels a kind of kinship with the scavenger, and he says he does, peering up at its implacable black eyes.

    Al Gorman has been walking the banks of the Ohio for decades. Now in his early 60s, he sticks his walking stick between stones, looking like an explorer in a green flat-brim hat and faded boat shoes, and recounts the history and pre-history of the place, the geological periods, Lewis and Clark, Audubon — all of which he knows so well he can summon it without even pausing as he climbs over a huge pile of driftwood. Without gloves (to the dismay of his mother), he plunges his hands into dirty water to retrieve cigarette lighters, drag hunks of Styrofoam up the shore, collect flip-flops lost or discarded in the murk. He deposits them in one of his many tote bags and carts them back to one of several stretches of beach or woods where he composes his art, like near the old train bridge, or down the hill from the Falls of the Ohio.

    Gorman spends hours out here alone, collecting the river’s gifts, arranging them into new forms. It’s a constant struggle. Nature doesn’t stop its dismantling work when Gorman makes his art, and then there are the people — Gorman calls them “Smashers” — who destroy what he creates. But this too is a kind of expression, Gorman tells me, a destructive counterpoint to his creative output. It can be frustrating, but there’s always more to work with. He gestures out at today’s haul — driftwood he found interesting, more shoes, about 17 lighters — and smiles. “This is as the river’s given it to me,” he says.

    This originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "Trash Art." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photos from Gorman's Instagram account, @artistatexit0.

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    About Dylon Jones

    Dylon Jones is an award-winning poet and essayist based in Louisville, Kentucky, where he serves as web editor of Louisville Magazine.

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