Originally published for The Sun Chronicle on May 26, 2016.
Kelly Goff has long been fond of making something from nothing.
As a child, he would explore construction sites down the street from his home on the Caribbean island of Curaçao while his family took part in the traditional daily siesta.
“One time I brought home a huge chunk of rigid foam debris and was caught carving it in the kitchen with (my mother’s) good knives,” the 35-year-old Norton transplant said. “So I think if there were no such thing as an artist, I would be piling stones in a cave somewhere. I would be building and making and exploring.”
Today, his work is driven by the same sense of potential, innovation and wonder, and the artist hopes to echo those desires to the many youngsters who visit his new exhibit at the Boston Children’s Museum this summer.
On display until July 17, “Emerald City” is an installation of three sculptures that bridge the natural world with the synthetic world humans leave behind.
Hanging above the gallery is a 30-foot paper cast of a dead cedar found in the woods behind Wheaton College, where Goff teaches sculpture.
Down below sit three tree stumps, each with a unique playback video reflected on the surface of the concrete casts. The first is a familiar close-up of earthworms ravaging the rotting earth. The second, a time-lapse of the Boston cityscape shot from the nearby Prudential building. And the third, a live camera feed from the inside the exhibit’s final piece – a 6-foot hollow log constructed from thousands of individual scraps of wood and illuminated by emerald green LED lights.
As they peek their heads inside, visitors become part of the art, their faces reflected just a few feet away in the exhibit.
The installation carries a common theme in Goff’s work: the tension humans feel when considering their man-made presence in a natural world.
Growing up beside an oil refinery on Curaçao, Goff said it was a constant, physical reminder that human development constantly interrupts the natural landscape. By reproducing natural objects with manmade materials, he hopes spectators will start to consider their relationship with the Earth.
But with such a heavy message, Goff admits an exhibit for the children’s museum was a new challenge.
“If there’s this ecological thread that’s always kind of weaving through my practice – how do you talk about that and appeal to kids and families? But kids are smart,” he said.
The artist turned to his 6-year-old son for inspiration. “Through the whole process I thought, ‘How would Liam interact with this?'” he said.
Everything from the size of the tree stumps – calibrated to Liam’s height – to the bright colors and contrasting video feeds were carefully designed to simplify Goff’s message and appeal to the museum’s audience. But as one of his more playful exhibits, Goff said not all visitors will pick up on the ecological component of his work – and that’s OK. Instead, he hopes the installation sparks a sense of wonder and intrigue.
“I hope they find unexpected things and feel a little bit of magic,” he said.
Museum arts program manager Alice Vogler said the installation, which opened May 21, has been well-received by families, though the museum had to place a plaque beside the hollowed structure to stop kids from climbing inside.
“There’s this great element of discovery with the live-cam inside the hollow log,” she said. “At some point when they’re playing around with the sculptures, they realize that connection … and they start becoming really silly with it and really inquisitive. They try to figure out how it works, where it is.
“When kids run towards the art – that’s when we know it’s a good thing. And that happened from the get-go.”
For Goff, discovering potential comes naturally and is something he tries to pass along to his son. Although he’s not quite following in his father’s artistic footsteps, at a young age Liam is already building and making – fascinated by the inner workings of video games and technology, his father said.
“He seems to be a maker,” Goff said. “And I think if anything, what rubs off on him is the sense that he can do things… that he can have an idea and he can execute that idea – that whatever it is, he can find a way to make it happen and bring it to life.”