Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Vices & Virtues of Repurposing Trash for Art

It is quite fashionable these days for schools to offer art classes that use found materials. In fact, art schools are taking pride in adding these ecoclasses to their schedules. We hear refrains of, "Keep things out of the landfill" and "We are running out of space for our trash." The phrases embody genuine concern, possibly even alarm. We cannot deny that in our disposal culture, we have an excess of stuff, but can we make art out of recycled materials alone? Like other art supplies, found materials are a wonderful source of inspiration and are a great addition to one's artistic arsenal. How useful are these classes from an art education perspective?

First, knowing how poor the art students generally are (and they are incurring huge debt by attending art school in the first place), we welcome ways to help them out. Encouraging them to scrounge or reuse, providing scraps or being able to send them to low-budget supply sources like the Depot for Creative Reuse and Scrap, helps lighten their financial load and reassures them that they don't always have to purchase new and pristine materials. So, I'm all for helping students.

We can also use these cast-offs to provide insights into our culture. In 2007, Michele Pred did a project with CCA students that involved cell phone chargers. She brought mountains of the chargers into the gallery, chargers that otherwise would have been crated and loaded onto a boat to China. Students interacted with the discards and created art pieces with them. The chargers did not end up in the landfill in China, but I also do not know where they ended up. Pred brought our attention to a formerly invisible problem, and I applaud her for that. The problem concerns the culture of disposability that we have created in the United States.

So, what do we gain by using new materials? Beginners and young artists gain skills. They learn that good paper doesn't buckle when good glue is used. They learn that higher-quality paints are denser and cover an area better. They learn that fine brushes don't leave stray bristles in the work. When I've asked my bookmaking students to bring in book cloth rather than found wrapping paper they've always said of their finished work, "It looks so professional!" They didn't believe they could ever make a book like that. Pride. That's what good materials can teach. The good stuff elevates the work, which in turn, provides a sense of accomplishment to the students. They learn how materials should behave; good materials are easier to work with. Once they have experience with what is possible, then they can scrounge. And they can make educated scrounging decisions; they will understand what is likely to happen when they use certain kinds of paper. From the ecological viewpoint, they can purchase high-quality supplies that are made from recycled materials.

From an art perspective, does the found material add to or distract from the intention of the piece? I once knew an artist who made assemblages from new toys. The work was uncomfortably weird and cold, the toys never handled by children. The worn spots and faded paint or chipped edges of used toys would have contributed the needed warmth and emotion to those artworks.

We have a duty to teach students how to sort and evaluate their materials. While I welcome serendipity and chance, I believe that all work must be done with knowledge and intention. The only way to be intentional is to understand the ways things work.

Shown above are refined works by three mid-career artists who reuse materials. They have worked hard to build the skills that will serve them well, no matter what supplies they choose. From left to right:
Aaron Kramer - wire streetsweeper bristles, buttons. Other work on his website. (His motto: "Trash is the failure of imagination.")
Briana Kaufmann - leftover silverware, other found metals
Lisa Kokin - discarded books and book parts, thread, more

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think this is a timely post. And I agree that working with new materials gives a student polish, while one can make an excellent drawing with a biro on a paper bag it is much easier to do so on a great sheet of cold press paper with a wonderful pencil. I always urge my students to buy the best quality they can afford. Especially as a student I think it affirms the seriousness of their intentions towards their future selves and their work. Once they have a feel for good materials it is much easier to know which recycled materials will work with their hand and technique. I think we owe it to the planet to be thoughtful with our use of materials but we owe our artists selves the right tool for the job!