This past weekend, the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum opened their two newest exhibits of the year, “A Handful of Dust” and Molly Smith’s “Root.”

Located in the downtown Paseo Nuevo shopping center, CAF is a nonprofit institution that began as a grassroots artist-run organization dedicated to exhibiting the contemporary artwork of local, national and international artists.

CAF typically features two exhibitions at a time, sometimes interconnected and sometimes widely divergent. This time, the front exhibit in the Charles Bloom Gallery features Molly Smith’s “Root,” a site-specific project about her personal experience as an artist in Santa Barbara.

Smith noticed that Santa Barbara had a lot less trash than many cities such as New York, where she attended Columbia University and graduated with an MFA. However, what trash she did find was mixed with leaves and organic waste that bunch up in creeks around the city. She collected the material and put them into handmade paper, which she then used to create sculptures.

Smith likes to work with raw materials such as driftwood, dye and paper to draw attention to beautiful natural phenomena. Outside the entrance to CAF was a flat wall sculpture of paper that had been dyed by the rain, arranged by light to dark shades of brown. I was amazed at the ingenuity of utilizing dirty rain as a pigment for an art project. Not only does Smith draw attention to the environment but she also creates a visually compelling work. Right inside the gallery, Log is a paper sculpture that resembles the shape of tree branches, colored with natural dyes that resemble bark. I enjoyed Smith’s work because she recycled all of her materials, which seems to capture the interests of Santa Barbara’s community as well as elements of our natural environment.

The main exhibit, titled “A Handful of Dust,” is entirely a sculpture show that brings together artists whose craft involves both prehistoric and contemporary materials. In referencing ancient tools, the artists also draw a connection to contemporary consumer culture and our desire to make and to hold things. Furthermore, archaic artifacts have a sense of timelessness to us and communicate a way of life that existed in the past.

In the Klausner Gallery, Allyson Vieira’s A Plan for Swamplands sits on the floor in the center of the gallery. Entirely made out of white plaster, the sculpture looks like an excavation site, perhaps of something that has been deconstructed or is in the process of being rebuilt. The uncertainty of this possible ruin site is masked by the potential the broken plaster has to become a creation of its own. The broken plaster looks like it is part of the ground that has been dug out, providing an illusionary feel that the viewers are discovering something within the dust of the gallery itself.

Another piece by Vieira was entitled Torsos (Castor and Pollux). She cast the inside of two buckets with plaster, cups, gloves and some pigment to create these solid bucket formations that rest over a mirror. The mirror distorts the shape of the plaster into a torso shape and gives the work a sense of depth down through the floor.

Photographs by Erin Shirreff interested me because the form seemed to not fit in what was supposed to be a sculpture show. However, the photos were of a sculpture that Shirreff made from a ceramic material that was hung in strips. Her work reinterprets the sculpture by making a three-dimensional object two-dimensional.

Both “A Handful of Dust” and “Root” are on display at CAF now until March 24th. I encourage anyone who enjoys art and downtown Santa Barbara to check out the show and future CAF exhibitions for themselves.

 A version of this article appeared on page 7 of January 31st, 2013’s print edition of the Nexus.