It started literally with trash--discarded McDonald’s drink cups strewn along my street. Picking them up and recycling them didn’t seem to be enough of a response. Realizing that my obsession with trash and the fate of the environment could translate into an art show, I started to see something different in those drink cups. The result was by no means a foregone conclusion and ultimately was the least of the discoveries on the way to TRASH! a Collaborative Eco Art Exhibit at the Cooperative Gallery in Binghamton NY in June 2016.
El Anatsui of Ghana says, “I have a desire to manipulate the material to get something else out of it.” He creates elaborate and massive tapestries from flattened liquor bottle caps and other scrap paper. “I collect rubbish and create something beautiful from it. I collect something that has no value and give it new life,” says South African Mbongeni Buthelezi. Bryant Holsenbeck of North Carolina states: “I use these everyday items to make work, which transforms the objects and surprises us.” I was delighted to know that more accomplished artists had already articulated what I was beginning to appreciate about trash.
I was not alone in this sentiment as more than two dozen artists responded to the call for this show. Robert Skiba was one individual whose obsession with a material that is environmentally a toxic nuisance created something that show attendees called the “Dale Chihuly of Plastics.” Skiba created a colorful, fantastical “Vertical Garden” of cut up vitamin bottles in long fronds, leaves, and feathery shapes. (photo) Joanne Thorne Arnold created “something else” out of cardboard, a material so common as to be invisible, yet she found textures and details in the corrugation that surprised and delighted.
Rae Freeman-Doyle found a medium and a message in the form of six pack plastic that causes the death of so many marine animals. An oceanic gyre the size of Texas is whirling around the Pacific; her “Gyre Wave” uses those plastic bits to create the froth on stylized waves painted on a piece of scrap wood. Chuck Haupt, normally a fine art photographer, also found a message in “United States of Plastic” made of the ubiquitous plastic bags.
“But is it art?” was a question that I kept coming back to, and knew that gallery attendees would be thinking. My criteria was where it started: did the artist transform—and transcend—the material itself? Did the viewer see an intriguing piece of art, and then notice the material used? That second look, that delight in being surprised, is what I was looking for. Interspersed with TRASH! art were Chuck Haupt’s photos of bales of recyclables which kept art lovers grounded in the environmental concerns about the by-products of our consumer culture.
Artists have always drawn attention to society’s flaws and many artists have always been attracted to a cheap medium for their art. For example, working with plastic cups I created grid art with two inch squares of consumer slogans, reducing them to color and shapes. In the process I learned about the properties of plastics, in terms of malleability and adhesives. And, I confess, the trash that I loathed as I walked my neighborhood became prized materials for my art project. My perspective on the trash that had been there the whole time had shifted, however slightly, and maybe that’s what happened to someone wandering around the gallery in June. It would have been enough.
The pieces call to me and I must respond. They call me into attics and basements, to trash bins and curbs. Friends and family drop them off. Small wooden tables, chairs and stools, boxes and shelves. Often covered with dust or mold, chipped and warped, I can see their deeper selves shining through. I can feel their potential, their possibilities, their hope. So I pick up my sander, my wood glue, my paint brush and I begin to play. I never work on new pieces. They don’t need me or want me. Fresh new wooden pieces have their own journey. They will find me soon enough in this throw-away world.
I was not raised during the Great Depression but my Irish/Welsh ancestors were. Consequently, I grew up rinsing out used plastic bags and rinsing off used aluminum foil. My first husband broke me of the aluminum foil habit, but I still rinse out zip lock bags, turn them inside out, and hang the on the tall, narrow jars in the pantry to dry - looking like tiny slim ghosts having a standoff.
Growing up, my family tent-camped for several weeks every summer. As a child I automatically sorted the garbage into - what goes into the camp fire and what is recycled by the weekly trash truck that came through the campgrounds.
My mother made sleeping bags for my sister and me out of our father’s old Navy Pea Coats and she lined them with disassembled and reassembled real fur cast-off coats and muffs from the local Thrift Stores. It was so exotic to sleep outdoors on soft, shinny furs that had been rescued from a vastly different experience.
Like bringing them back where they began. Where they belonged.
When my first son was young, as a single mom, we scoured junk yards to find bicycle parts and triumphantly built him a beautiful multicolored bicycle. We learned the hard way that there are actually right and left peddles, but once we got that down there wasn’t a hill in the neighborhood he couldn’t take.
In addition to my furniture rescue, I now collect old abandoned quilts; hand sewn creative fabric stories of love and life from the past. I re-mend them, add a wild new border, fluffy new stuffing and quietly deliver them to adults and children who need a soft, unconditional hug.
Thou I am often saddened by the sight of an abandoned quilt or tossed out wooden stool, chair, or table, I can also see the beauty and value in spite of stains and tears, beyond broken legs, and beneath scratches and bruises. I can see their Second Chance.
We collect things. Most of them we stumble upon; others we seek out. Some of these things have value, but usually we like the way they look or feel or they remind us of something or someone special, so our home becomes their new home for a while. We also like to learn about things that other people collect. Talking to another person about their collection and handling the items is an intimate way to gain insight into that person because there is usually a story that goes along with each piece.
We occasionally use one or more of our objects in our photographs, but decided that we wanted to do a series using nothing but objects - a still life series. Maybe it was a way to justify our collecting but we decided to let them tell stories. There is not a single story for any image, but each sets the stage for the viewer to tell their own story. These images form a series we created using articles/objects collected by us and others, titled Implications I, in which two similar images of collected articles are photographed and interwoven, resulting in images that place emphasis on certain areas of or objects in the image or play with the viewer's expectations.
The first three images contain articles we collected - books, vessels, containers, keys, candlesticks, fabrics and other objects. "Dead Roses" (above; the rest of the images in the slideshow below) is set in the long-ago past, with its old brass candelabra and ancient books, one showing a period costume. The flowers are so old, they're dead. "Lilies" is reminiscent of a mother's or grandmother's home setting. It has a ceramic pitcher and candlestick, a baby picture, hand-embroidered table cover, a decorated lipstick case and a full and feminine arrangement of flowers. "Mixed Flowers" is more of a mixed bag. Depending on the viewer's experience, the setting could be more along the lines of shabby chic with its hand-embroidered piece contrasted with the heavier hand-woven piece, the ceramic pitcher next to the bone china sugar bowl, and variations in the flowers, as well.
The other three images show others' collected objects - primarily native art objects and wearables. "Cactus" is a friend's collection of art/craft objects from North and Central America made of natural materials, such as wool, trees, grasses and clay. Because of the smaller size of these articles, they are generally intended for decorative purposes, but could be
of some use. The collector was drawn to the skill and design of the crafts people and was less concerned with their functionality or collecting a specific type of article, nor is he actively trying to add to the collection. "Faux Flowers" contains some of the many items collected by Frank's mother and kept with her in her room at the nursing home until her passing at age 102. We decided to use these to create a biographical memorial of sorts. She loved wearables, every kind of clothing and accessory, especially hats. Though not all used here, most of the snapshots we found pictured her, including one from the '70s, wearing the tiara and another from the '90s, wearing the sombrero. Even the flowers and vase were found in a drawer in her room. A few of the hats and all of the snapshots became part of our collections after her passing. The rest of the articles were passed on to organizations so others might give them a home or decide to destroy them. "Tulips" is a memorial to Terri's aunt. She enjoyed costume jewelry, dress gloves and other accessories, collecting primarily in the late '40s and early '50s, after she graduated from nursing school and before she married. This collection included a set of cuff links and pin to wear with her nursing uniform and a durable, but stylish watch with a second hand that doubled as a tool of her trade. Again, a few of the articles became part of our collections after her passing; the rest passed on.
Each of us has our reason for collecting something. We might even have different reasons for collecting different things and might have different constraints on our collecting, such as space or money. These reasons are all personal, whether they are emotional, economic or aesthetic and are what make each collection a unique window into the collector's soul.
Terri St.Arnauld & Frank Yezer are Artists/Photographers who collaborate and live in Austin, TX. They work primarily with large-format film, printing in platinum or gelatin silver.
Here we highlight featured stories from the archive, contributions by fellow writers and artists, as well as reflections and comments on the value and impact of discarded objects in our world.