Saturday, March 10, 2007

Peanut Butter!

So, I’ve had this idea kicking around in my brain since early college, but have been putting it off until now. It came from a discussion an economics teacher had with us; what’s does it take to make a jar of peanut butter?
OK, when you go to the store, and plunk down under $4 for a jar of peanut butter, you really don’t think much about it. It’s pretty much like anything else you pay for. It’s easy to find, and pretty much looks and tastes the same as the last time you got it (you know, homogenous). Let’s keep this simple and presume we’re talking about all natural peanut butter (my favorite is Adams. I’m not getting any sponsorship for this project yet, but if I did, it should be from Smucker’s Inc. My motto: “You can’t sell out if you’ve never bought in!” Now where’s my free jar of Adams?)
Anyway, let’s figure out where all the stuff that makes up a jar of peanut butter comes from:

From farms, mostly in the South East region of the US. Georgia, Alabama, Florida, South Carolina. I just found out on the internet that unlike other nuts, this one is not grown on trees. It comes from a little plant that has flowers on it. Cute.
Jar: Ok, obviously it’s mostly glass, but that’s not all.
Label: It’s got a sticky side, a paper-like substance and ink.
Lid: Metal, a rubber inner seal, some sort of anodized coating on the inside, Paint on the outside, with a lovely logo (some sort of offset printing technique, I’m guessing)
That’s about as far as the discussion went in class. But thinking about it, I realized it didn’t stop there:
Not including all the transportation to get all these items into the peanut butter factory and then onto the shelves of your local store, we’ve covered the basics of the component parts. So, how do you make each part?
Peanuts: Grown
Water irrigation
Soil , fertilizers and/or pesticides often used (natural or otherwise). Soil maintenance, (tiling, cover crops in the winter, all sorts of things)
Harvest, via manual labor or big huge gas powered machines.
Glass: Made from silicon dioxide (sand) and other materials at a high heat in a big industrial factory.
Glue: gelatin (from horse hooves or synthetic sources)
Paper: Trees, hemp (outside of the US anyway), or other things that you can get cellulose out of.
Ink: All sorts of recipes, but dye based inks include solvents. Oh boy.
Metal: Smelted from ore, or recycled from other metal products, again, in huge industrial factories that I tend to drive by on the highways, but never actually get to visit. (I’d love to tour these places)
Paint: Binder, Dilutant, and additives. Binders can be anything from natural oils to epoxies. Dilutants include water, alcohols, ketones, and petroleum distillates. Additives include pigments or dyes as well as thickeners, stabilizers, etc.
Hey, this project is about making a painting from scratch, not peanut butter! But, you could say building those tools (tractors, factories, logging trucks, etc) would be a step back. If you keep going back far enough, I believe that nearly everything we do these days derives back to smelting ore, harnessing oil (into fuel, plastics, etc), and creating fabric. No wonder oil companies are so rich! Of course, this does worry me about what’s going to happen we’ll eventually run out of oil…
So, one idea behind this project is to connect all the processes that are behind a finished item that we take for granted, and consciously realize them. What does it take to truly be independent? What is the best art I can produce when I do everything myself? Actually, scratch that, I don’t think I will be able to do everything myself. I’m planning on restricting the bulk of the materials to come from a small geographical location. Specifically, my parent’s new property. They are in the process right now of moving to 38 acres outside of Oregon City. It’s mostly forested, and has a red clay soil, which I heard things do not grow very well from. Since I’m up in Vancouver BC, I’ll have to do a bit of delegation on some (OK, a LOT) of the things to get this project rolling.
Anyway, my project has to be at least two steps back, most likely more. I’ve already decided that I won’t be smelting my own metal, because
1) It’s very likely that my parent’s land won’t have the necessary ore to smelt copper & tin (to make bronze) and
2) old-school smelting releases all sorts of nasty chemicals, like arsenic, into the environment, and I don’t want to mess up my parent’s property (at least, not that much)
So, I think one acceptable work around would be to grow something, or do something in exchange for some scrap metal, from which I could build my own tools. Any thoughts on this? Please comment on what would be a good starting point!

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