Rethinking Recycled Art - What Happened Week

By Meredith Schneider

Artwork has been created using found materials for as long as there has been art. Creating visually stunning objects out of ordinary material is a fascinating realm of conception. Recently, with the economy and the state of the world as it is, artists have been drawn to recycled materials for their inspiration and artwork. In fact, art itself is essentially the creation of beauty with common materials. It has just become more accepted for artists and designers to use scraps and other recycled materials in the green scheme of things.

Enter companies like SCRAP. Located in San Francisco, SCRAP is a hub for recycled materials available to the public. “Broadly defined, we take all reusable art supplies, or anything that can be an art supply,” explains SCRAP Executive Director Shuai Chen. “We seek to provide to the artists and teachers who cannot get these materials elsewhere or it is cost prohibitive to get it elsewhere.”

Photo courtesy of SCRAP. “A Woven Identity” by Sofia Gonzalez

“What I love about SCRAP is that it is such a win-win-win,” continues Chen. “Our mission hits on three important topics: preserving the environment, inspiring creativity and supporting the arts, and educating students — as well as adults. The people who donate to us save on dumping fees and get a tax deduction, the students who come to take field trips get inspired to be more creative, and the people who shop get all kinds of materials that they wouldn’t normally have access to at affordable prices.”

Venues such as SCRAP and The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachussetts provide patrons with workshops geared toward the recycling of everyday objects.

“Unlike art materials and tools that are designed to be used to ‘make art,’ found or re-used materials come with a history and a preconceived purpose,” indulged Rosemary Agoglia, Director of Education at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. “The act of re-envisioning and creating with such materials is process rich in potential for wondering, imagining, tinkering and learning. Finding the potential in an object which might ordinarily be discarded is empowering. We want our guests to leave with the understanding that one doesn’t need a lot of fancy art supplies to engage in art making.”

Places such as SCRAP and The Eric Carle Museum are a smorgasbord for artists like Virginia Fleck and Brian Dettmer, who are known for their recycled pieces. Fleck works exclusively with recycled plastic bags to make innovative art that is displayed in many green building projects. Dettmer is known for sculptures made of books and other random media, and has had his work featured in museums across the United States. But is it any more difficult to get recycled art seen in the art world?

“Ever since I can remember I have been creating art and people have noticed my talent and interest,” Dettmer clarifies. “As far as the first big break, it happened around 2006 when a gallery in Mexico City (Art & Idea) discovered my work through a mutual friend. They took my work on and offered me my first solo show in New York later the same year. I had been showing locally in Chicago before then and had worked a day job for about 10 years at that point. I’ve been able to focus on my work full time since then.”

With his perfect blend of both the analytical and artistic sides of his brain, there is a reason Dettmer has been commissioned for so many big projects. His repertoire is far too extensive to note all of his projects, but he did enlighten us with a fresh memory of sorts.

Photo courtesy of SCRAP. Mask (“Wake Up! I’d Like to See You Again”) by Aiko Cuneo, quilt (“Scarlet Stripe Quilt”) by Bruce Wile, bottle cap wedding dress (“First Comes Love”) by Remi Rubel.

“I think my most recent favorite has been the large Chaos print I finished last year. I charted the route of meanings from the word Chaos through an old Thesaurus,” says Dettmer. “The result is a huge print of a radial chart that looks like a large mandala containing over 2600 words.”

Recycled artwork is not just to be regarded as dumpster diving anymore. Volunteers and friends of the art world are on a mission to provide artists and young thinkers with quality materials that have been overlooked previously. Art that envelopes the mind and captivates large audiences has been produced by materials found by fellow art lovers. It is a very sharing culture, and not one where you will find greed for said materials.

If any of this information has piqued your interest in visiting a collective to root for your own treasures, all it will take is a simple search online to find the best options in your area. Agoglia had some useful information on where to find some good resource centers.

“There are resource centers across the country that receive discards and seconds from manufactures for the purpose of making them available to schools and individuals. Extras for Creative Reuse in Lynn, MA, and Resources for Rhode Island Education are two such places in New England. And, has vision for a resource/shop/education center even more locally to us.”

As for donating to the cause, each place differs in strategy. SCRAP isn’t too specific about their material donations, but they do have clear outlines.

“We take anything from fabric and buttons to crayons to metal and wood to tiles,” continues Chen. “We try not to take clothing, electronics and furniture since thrift stores will accept them, and we don’t accept large building materials because of space constraints and because Building Resources takes them. So we have our own specific niche of materials that have no other place to go and that can be reused for projects.”

To learn more about SCRAP and their mission, visit them online. The Eric Carle Museum’s blog, has information on their history and the process by which they retrieve material.