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When the word plastic comes to mind, it’s not immediately associated with being an artifact. And when the term border comes to mind, many of us immediately picture a physical international border. But with some careful thought and help from a new exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, it’s easy to see how both plastic itself and borders are a part of a much bigger picture in human history and existence. Border Crossing is a new exhibit by Albuquerque-based artist Jami Porter Lara. Through unique pottery pieces that resemble plastic bottles, Porter Lara explores physical and figurative borders that individuals cross on a daily basis.

Plastic bottles are commonly left behind along border crossings. Used to carry water, many of the bottles are left behind because they’re considered trash having been made from plastic. Four years ago, when Porter Lara spent time traveling along the U.S. and Mexico border in Southern Arizona, she noticed just how many two-liter water bottles could be found in the area. She noticed, she said, that these two-liter bottles were juxtaposed among broken pieces of pottery vessels from the cultures that have passed through the area over the centuries. Naturally, today those broken pieces of pottery are considered artifacts, while those discarded plastic bottles are considered trash. But what is it that creates this distinction between trash and artifact? Does the boundary between the two really even exist? Remember that saying, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure?”

Through her work, Porter Lara explores how what’s considered trash today can be an artifact. Just how the broken pottery pieces she saw along the border are artifacts from previous cultures, the water bottle is a contemporary artifact of the people crossing that same border today.

The pieces you’ll find in Porter Lara’s exhibit transform the bottle into a precious object – it becomes a vessel, like those artifacts of the past, to carry life-sustaining water across a border. Her pieces encourage us to transform what we once regarded as trash into something that is telling of our human history. She blurs the border that exists between rubbish and artifact.

And while in the exhibit, it’s not hard to finally blur that distinction for yourself. Items that resemble water bottles surround you throughout the exhibit, but suddenly they’re not bottles, they’re art. The shiny, smooth texture of the hardened clay and unique shapes they’re in transform what would otherwise be considered a bottle into something prized and precious – an artifact.

A second boundary her pieces blur is one that many people create between themselves and nature. Her exhibit encourages us to question the human relationship with nature, and how those lines that we create to divide us from nature technically don’t exist. We are a part of nature; plastic, something we consider completely separate from the natural world, is in fact made from chemicals that exist in nature and by the human hand. We discard it as if it’s trash, when in fact it is part of the natural world. Porter Lara crosses endless boundaries with her work, encouraging us to questions what boundaries and borders we encounter on a daily basis.

Border Crossing, on display from February 17 to May 14, is placed next to another exhibit, New Ground: The Southwest of Maria Martinez and Laura Gilpin, to highlight the past and ongoing creativity and history of the American southwest.

Now, if the two main themes of Border Crossing aren’t enough to think about already, the exhibit also speaks to more than binary distinctions. It reminds us of the obvious, that people are crossing borders every day. Being a time in the U.S. when that same border Porter Lara was exploring just four years ago is threatened, the exhibits bring attention to the many communities and people that have existed along that southwestern border throughout centuries. A threat to that border is a threat to the history, cultures, and people who have crossed it countless times. The exhibit is an important reminder, especially here on the east coast, of how much history the American Southwest has and continues to make every day.