Scraps of food left on a cafeteria tray. Trash strewn alongside a city street. A wind-tossed plastic bag, hanging precariously on a tree limb. For Victoria Widener, it’s more than just garbage. Rather, for the graduating Rutgers University–Camden senior, each instance presents an opportunity to create art addressing urgent environmental issues.
Simply put, says Widener, it’s a chance to make art with a purpose.
“I would describe my work as somewhere in the realm of Eco Art,” says Widener, a resident of Philadelphia who formerly lived in Maple Shade. “Of course, if you give it a purpose, then it raises the question of whether it is still art. But art is anything that can inspire people and move them to feel something.”
On May 22, Widener will put the finishing touches on her latest masterpiece as she graduates with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. To those in Rutgers–Camden’s vibrant arts community, she has seemingly never tired of planning her next project. But, amazingly, it wasn’t long ago when she didn’t even see art as a viable part of her future plans.
For as long as she can recall, Widener’s passions for art and the environment have run deep, but these interests often grew parallel to one another. Arriving at Rutgers–Camden in fall 2012, she initially pursued a major in biology, believing that science held the only key to her career goals. That was, however, until she took an introductory art course with professor Ken Hohing during her first semester. Through challenging, hands-on assignments and engaging class discussions, Widener rekindled her love of art and realized the power that the medium possessed as a tool for educating others.
Suddenly, it was “artistic” to challenge the norms, she recalls, and assignments routinely became games of figuring out how to make them all her own. “It was okay if I didn’t meet every direction and bullet point exactly, because I was turning it into my own assignment,” says Widener, who earned an associate’s degree from Burlington County College.
Widener soon switched her major to art with a concentration in sculpture. She also conducted a self-proposed minor in ecology, under the advisement of professor John Dighton, so she could better understand the environmental issues that she wished to tackle.
With a reawakened sense of expression, Widener’s dual passions would collide in a range of art projects addressing environmental concerns. Her first exploration into the field of “Eco Art” took place in spring 2013 with a project titled “The Beauty of Decomposition.” Widener built an acrylic compost tumbler and installed it outside the Fine Arts Building on the Rutgers–Camden campus. She then collected organic waste and filled the tumbler, giving passersby a glimpse of the naturally decomposing materials inside. At the end of the semester, Widener donated the compost for use in Camden’s Children’s Garden.
Widener’s works increasingly included an interactive or performance aspect to them, intending to grab viewers by the senses and, ultimately, their consciences. Videos online capture several of these projects in action. In one such project, Widener created a series of sculptures in North Philadelphia that she refers to as “Trash Trees.”
In another project, Widener collected leftovers from strangers in the cafeteria to be used in the construction of a “food battery,” charged by energy created as anaerobic bacteria break down the food. A performance piece, “Are you done with that?,” documented her collection of food scraps from unsuspecting strangers.
In addition to her art projects, Widener became active in a series of arts-related initiatives and programs, both at Rutgers–Camden and in the City of Camden. As president of the Arts Students League on campus, she became an instrumental force behind many activities and events, such as the inaugural Camden Comic Con. A Rutgers–Camden Civic Scholar, she also volunteered in the garden at The Neighborhood Center in Camden and, subsequently, created the ongoing Growing Minds project.
Hoping to leave a lasting, sustainable art program for Camden youth, Widener co-created the Growing Minds project with fellow student Kristie Anthony as a way to provide introductory art and agriculture classes for Camden students in the Pyne Point Middle School afterschool program. The program will culminate in an instillation that features a hydroponic garden system, sustaining growing food plants, placed into a three-dimensional ceramic wall mural, composed of ceramic pieces created by Camden youth.
“This project promotes art, education, and sustainability, and will result in an artwork that will feed both minds and bellies in the Camden community,” says Widener, who designed the project as part of her Art and Urban Sustainability class with professor Elizabeth Demaray.
Reflecting on her time at Rutgers–Camden, Widener is grateful for the many opportunities that she was given to express her creativity, both through her art and community service. As she embarks on new challenges, she has words of advice to impart to those who aren’t so sure about their future plans. “It’s okay to be lost,” she says. “As long as you keep your mind open, eventually you stumble into whatever it is that you are supposed to be doing.”