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On Art, The Art Of Escape, And Military Supply Chain
Rick LeBlanc explores the peculiar and important uses for wood pallets and the changing public image of the wood pallet.

By Rick LeBlanc
Date Posted: 5/1/2003

Once upon a time, pallets were headline news. In an Alaskan publication some 50 years ago, the Alaska Steamship Company ran several banner advertisements celebrating its new "unitized cargo." This was a radical approach consisting of goods being put on pallets so that forklifts could "provide faster handling."

Half a century ago pallets were at the heart of a transformational technology that eventually came to change the face of material handling. Now it is only a big surprise if pallets screw up — if they break in a racking system or jam a conveyor, even if pallet buyers are not willing to pay for adequate quality. It would be the same as if the buyer invited his boss over for dinner and then bought the absolute cheapest bottle of wine on the supermarket shelf — and then expected a superior dining experience. With pallets, as with wine, under-investment can leave a bad taste.

It seems that it takes an artist’s eye to truly appreciate the pallet. For several years there have been examples of pallets disassembled to make wood-working projects — such as recycled furniture or wood sculptures. Last summer, for example a prison inmate in the Midwest carved a replica Harley Davidson motorcycle out of scrap pallets as part of a release readiness program. Was he dreaming about escape? We’re not sure, but in the same season, another inmate in a different prison actually used pallets to pull off the real thing. This prisoner made headlines by sawing a hollow place out of the middle of a stack of empty pallets, and then hiding inside it. Obscured by cardboard, the prisoner huddled inside the stack of pallets, and they were loaded onto a supplier’s truck. He ultimately escaped and went half-way across the country until his West Coast ‘dwell time’ was cut short when he was found and apprehended. Authorities recovered and retrieved him, to use the vernacular of pallet management.

The first time I actually saw intact pallets embraced for art work was at an art gallery in Vancouver a few years ago. Brian Jungen is a British Columbia artist who previously had achieved national recognition for creating a near life-sized whale skeleton; it was made from plastic lawn chairs that had been sliced into pieces. He presented a new work consisting of a stack of 10 wooden pallets. Not that these were normal pallets — they were built of clear grade red cedar and fastened with wooden pegs. In spite of their fine craftsmanship, however, they didn’t make that much of an impression with the Vancouver Sun art critic, who preferred the plastic whale skeleton.

Fast forward almost two years to another art show in Seattle. Stuart Keeler, another Pacific Northwest artist, unveiled a work made from pallets in February. It was part of an exhibit entitled, "Nomads." Keeler, who has a reputation of using wood in innovative ways to create art, rented 400 pallets from a waterfront company, and then crafted them into a display at the Cultural Development Authority Gallery. At the very least, a pallet person would be hard pressed not to appreciate Stuart’s observations. He sees humble wood shipping pallets as "silent, nomadic cultural ambassadors, transporting culture to culture in support of a material world." He also called them "the elegant serving platters of industry." Whatever vintage he’s sipping, I hope he passes some of it along to pallet buyers, who are apparently still busy looking for the cheapest bottle on the shelf.

The exhibit was scheduled to be on display for a month, but it lasted only three increasingly odiferous hours before it was given an early eviction notice. It seems that the used pallets, once warmed up in the gallery, began to dispatch "a musty odor of serious decay," according to a Seattle art critic’s review. The building’s ventilation system quickly spread the smell throughout the building and even onto the street. A toxicologist was called in and detected the presence of mold spores. A fire department official became concerned that the pallets were "vulnerable to the kind of flash fire that could overwhelm the sprinkler system." The artist was summoned, and in a spirit of cooperation he videotaped his 400-pallet exhibit being dismantled and removed. Instead of the pallets, he put the video on display in the art gallery for the duration of the scheduled exhibit.

The nature of art is to find beauty in unexpected places, sometimes through celebration of the overlooked and under-appreciated in society — things like pallets. The breakthrough device of a half-century ago is just a faceless workhorse these days. But the pallet’s truest artistic merits come through when properly specified, manufactured and applied, enabling the supply chain to maximize its efficiencies.

And as I write this column, no supply chain faces a greater imperative than the one that supports the coalition forces moving through Iraq. Mention of the oft-forgotten wooden pallet once again lights up newspaper story after story as pallets of supplies are loaded aboard ship and plane and offloaded on the other side. Ports and landing fields were quickly secured, in no small part to facilitate unitized movement of supplies to the front line.

It’s not a surprise to anyone in the pallet industry that when the going gets tough, the pallet is playing its part.

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