Barbara Claas turns bottles into blooms

Barbara Claas

How do you keep those pesky squirrels out of the bird feeder? One winter several years ago, Barbara Claas simply installed an empty plastic beverage bottle with the bottom cut off onto the feeder pole. Squirrels attempting to climb the pole came to a dead end (literally, not figuratively) inside the bottle. As she held the bottle bottom, she mused about what to do with it. Yes, it could be picked up by Cleveland Heights’s stellar curbside recycling program. But some Heights artists, such as Debbie Apple Presser and Catherine Butler, have made amazing things from discarded beverage bottles and cans, and Claas began to play with the materials. “They must be good for something other than crumbling and putting into the garbage,” she said. Today, she creates intricate and beautifully crafted flowers, earrings and necklaces. Only a very close examination reveals the materials’ original use.  

Living near pedestrian-friendly Lee Road, Claas sources bottles and cans while walking down the street. Her husband, biologist Jeffrey Dean, collects them for her while bicycling to and from his job at Cleveland State University (CSU). Only rarely does Claas purchase a beverage, seduced by a can’s color and texture. “I don’t drink any of that!” she exclaimed. She finds the designs, colors, and materials of beverage cans inspiring, and is amazed at the engineering of plastic beverage bottles. Claas also uses copper electrical wire, bottle caps, water-based acrylic paints, and glues. Her art supply store is most often Home Depot.  

One of the reasons that Claas’ work is so naturalistic is that she is a biologist and gardener. Although her degree is in zoology, not botany, scientific departments are not relevant in her native plant garden where she houses mason bees on the garage to pollinate the sour cherry tree. Nectar guides, sometimes only visible to humans under ultraviolet light, are one of many flower features incorporated in her pieces. “I love flowers,” she said.

Claas has been involved in art-making since childhood but, like many practical parents, her mother advised her “You will starve” if she chose it as a livelihood. While finishing her graduate degree in biology at Bielefeld University in her native Germany, Claas met her American husband. They have lived in Cleveland Heights since 1998, first stopping off in Nashville before Dean took a position at CSU.

Claas’ beautiful work is carried by Heights Arts, 2175 Lee Road. There’s something simple and perfect about that: discarded single-use materials found on Lee Road, transformed on a nearby street, and offered for purchase as art objects back on Lee Road. 

Peggy Spaeth

Peggy Spaeth writes about Heights residents and their impact locally, regionally and worldwide.

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Volume 8, Issue 1, Posted 11:28 AM, 01.05.2015