Something from Nothing: Why I Make Art from Garbage
I have strong feelings about making garbage.
I have two degrees in Environmental Science. This means that I spent months of my education visiting waste treatment facilities, garbage dumps, sanitary landfills, and recycling centers. I studied supply chain economics, and their connection to air pollution, water pollution, resource use, and energy production.
I also served in the US Peace Corps, and part of my work focused on waste management education on a small island nation. I encountered the limitations of waste management infrastructure in developing countries, and a deeply complex culture surrounding newness, cleanliness, and an environment of scarcity. And I experienced firsthand the toll that overproduction and overconsumption of consumer goods has on marginalized communities.
I have this thing about making garbage.
And that's why I make art out of garbage.
One of the things I enjoyed most about my Peace Corps work were these Garbage Art Workshops I'd facilitate every week at the Community Learning Center. Art supplies were difficult to find, super-expensive, and, honestly, pretty crappy in quality. But know what we had lots of? Garbage. For me, it was a perfect opportunity to work on community waste management education, divert trash from the waste stream, and indulge in something fun.
We began by collecting toilet tissue rolls, carboard boxes, milk cartons, plastic bottles, styrofoam containers, bottle caps... there was an abundance of material to work with. We had a huge collection of raw materials in no time. The next step was to set the ground rules:
Use as much of the garbage material as possible
Use as little added craft supplies as we can
Have as much fun as necessary
Most of the things we made had to be straightforward, given the little hands and short attention spans, but with a little creativity, glue, and a box of crayons, we were able to make something new every week for two years... no repeats.
We made toys and games, and musical instruments, and puppet theaters.
We made jewelry, and home decor, and mothers' day cards.
We celebrated Christmas, Halloween, and Easter with handmade decorations, costumes, and activities built on trash.
We saw garbage in a new way: was it shiny? bendy? colorful?
And once the kids began to look for the potential in waste, they began to really see it. Everywhere.
The limitations presented by our crafting ground rules (use up the trash, add as little as possible) pushed us to be even more creative than if we'd had all the fancy tools we wanted. And this resourceful approach is now something I try to incorporate in much of my artwork to this day- whether or not I'm actually crafting with literal trash.
In a world with so much garbage being generated every day, it's worth asking ourselves how to make less of it. And if you're looking for a challenge: how can we use it?
A quick internet search can show you all the neat-o ways creators are making incredible things from waste, from impressive installations, to gallery works, to consumer goods, and, of course, social commentary.
What do we already have at our fingertips to help us make our ideas come to life? We can extend this mindset to things that aren't traditionally art supplies. What can be repurposed and transformed into something magical? This resourcefulness can surprise us by adding unexpected qualities to our work that we wouldn't have included on purpose. But that's art for you! Happy accidents, and all.
There's a delicious satisfaction to be found in creating something from nothing. The alchemy that's involved in the magical transformation of the mundane into the meaningful is really something special.
Try it sometime. You might like it!
There's a lot of trash out there.
Oh the possibilities...