HAMILTON — What kind of art can you make with leftover paint, after you’ve finished making art?
It’s a question that poses itself to Rich Erickson of Ipswich, who has taught art at Pingree School for more than 20 years, in spoonfuls of acrylic paint that are left on students’ palettes at the end of every day.
“It dries fast,” Erickson said. “It sets up like Elmer’s glue, and you can’t save it.”
So about 31/2 years ago, Erickson, who has previously exhibited his work in New York; Marfa, Texas; and Zumi’s in Ipswich, started playing around with the leftover paint.
The creative experiments he conducted can be seen in an exhibit, “There is art in throwing away paint,” which is on display at the school’s Bertolon Family Gallery until April 5.
The show’s title can be read in several ways, raising serious questions while also fooling around, and that’s also how his artworks operate.
“I started putting the leftover paint in small, empty cardboard boxes,” Erickson said. “I’d throw it, splash it.”
After the various colors dried inside the box, he painted over them with black.
“Then I’d fill the box with expandable foam, so the inside was solid,” Erickson said. “Then I’d soak the box in water for three or four days. That softens the cardboard, so I could remove the box.”
He wouldn’t know what he had until the cardboard was pulled away, but he liked what he found often enough that he has filled half the exhibit with these pieces.
“I got a whole bunch of these three-dimensional rectangles, which are on a black surround, that are basically the empty space of a box,” Erickson said. “It was the idea of filling an empty box with paint, making a negative-space box.”
Once he had committed himself to using the paint that he couldn’t save, Erickson started collecting things to paint.
“We were having lunch one day, and they had this cotton candy machine, with paper rolls for the cotton candy,” he said. “I mounted one of those on a wooden base and started pouring paint on it. It looks like a colorful icicle.”
He has a friend, an architectural woodworker, who always has strips of wood remaining from his jobs.
“Some are thick, and some are thin. I’ll grab a pile of those, then I cut them up randomly in 14- and 15-inch lengths,” he said.
He paints four or five strips with acrylic colors and glues them together, then glues several of these groups together. The ends are left rough and unpainted, so their natural colors form a frame around the horizontal lines.
Erickson got hold of some Mylar sheets that had been used in a theater production at school and put paint on those.
“They were wrinkled and crinkled,” he said. “I stretched them over leftover matte board. I put paint in a small cup and thinned it with water so it would be like a waterfall.”
Not content with finding new materials to paint, he also collected paint that had dried in unusual forms and made art out of them.
“You know how when you have toothpaste all dried toward the opening of the tube? The same thing happens with a tube of acrylic paint,” Erickson said. “You usually scrape it off or throw it away, but I started saving those.
“It’s like a ragged doughnut. The hole in the center is perfectly symmetrical, but the edges feather out into these unpredictable shapes.”
Erickson stuck a piece of wire in a wooden base and slipped the “doughnuts” onto the wire the way you would “put a ring on your finger.”
“Now I have a tower of those, 12 inches tall,” he said.
The leftover acrylic also gave Erickson a chance to experiment with new methods of applying paint to surfaces.
“I put them on a piece of foam core and squeegeed them down. I made an 8- or 10-inch swath of color,” he said, “then ran a dinner fork over them, like corduroy pants.
“I didn’t want to waste paint, but I wanted to do something different I hadn’t done before.”
As a teacher, Erickson makes sure his students learn traditional techniques of drawing and painting, which he has never completely abandoned in his own work.
“I’ve been doing sculpture of human faces forever,” he said. “You just can’t leave it, you can’t get away from it. I’ve done a couple this year, just because they’re so hard. Every time you make one, you learn more about the face.”
But Erickson also enjoys playfully exploring “what you can do with an idea” and feels the work in this exhibit shares that lesson.
“There was never any intention of showing this stuff, I was just doing this to play with the color,” he said. “Then I figured, I’ve got so much of this stuff, if you want to convey the idea that art can explore, without knowing where it can take you, that this is worthwhile for students to see.”
If you go What: "There is art in throwing away paint," exhibit by Rich Erickson Where: Bertolon Family Gallery, Pingree School, 537 Highland St., Hamilton When: Through April 5. Gallery hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. More information: Free. 978-468-4415 or www.pingree.org.