• Pamela Froman

Strange Hue: Recycling and Art

Recycling is a part of everyday life and efforts to do so are applauded. But recycling goes farther than simply changing soda cans for cash. It can also turn up in unexpected places…such as art.

Recycling as art is nothing-new (think Karl Schwitters' merz pieces--whole environments constructed from rags and junk.) Art by definition always involves recycling, the resynthesis of materials and imagery into new aesthetic forms. Certain contemporary artists, with or without an environmentalist agenda, work entirely with "found" objects--bottle caps, newspapers, buttons, pop tops, iron from scrap heaps, discarded TV sets--and in this way celebrate recycling as a creative process.

There are recycled art festivals and fairs taking place all the time. Fairs open the eyes of the public to alternative methods of reusing and recycling. Creativity with an eco-friendly theme is displayed to inspire all people. Most commonly, the fairs feature exhibits for viewing and sometimes hold contests among the artists in areas of innovation use of recycled goods. Alternatively, most festivals are designed for the selling artwork and other eco-friendly goods. Often the festivals are combined with local and organic farmers markets and other concerned organizations.

For example, at the Recycle Santa Fe Art Festival, all of the vendors create arts and crafts from at least 75% recycled/reused materials. Collages, picture frames, clocks, furniture, rugs, and jewelry are just some of the items available. The weekend features a trash fashion contest, kids recycled art activities, and a juried art contest with exhibits made of reused/rescued materials and recycled art vendors.

At the REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE...RECRAFT! eco-friendly craft fair in Somerville, MA, often vendors show how recycling can be put to practical - and beautiful use. For instance, one exhibitor, One Small Star Jewelry, offers recycled jewelry for display and for sale. The jewelry is handmade, rehabbed, repurposed and from semiprecious jewelry; etched recycled glassware -- vases and candleholders; and jewelry storage pieces from recycled wood, cork and coat hanger wire. All have lovely results. (

Many artists specialize in environmental work. One example of an environmental artist is the work of John Dahlsen. Dalsen began his love affair with recycling art when he took a walk on the beach one day and ended up bringing back a big pile of refuse back to his studio. For Dahlsen's pieces, he actively harvests from 'nature' (really the discarded products of human manufacture.) One example of Dahlsen's unique recycling methods can be found in his work "Black Wall Purge Sculpture," which is entirely made from discarded plastic. Dahlsen comments, "I make paintings, drawings and encaustic wax installations of sculptures that are inherently plastic fabricator machine end waste. The use of plastic materials and their place in the evolutionary motions of recycling are important to me in constructing these images." Credit for his eco-friendly collecting has been made by the Clean up Australia and Clean up the World campaigns who have designated Dahlsen as their official artist. Through the material he finds, Dahlsen depicts various landscapes and the multitude of objects to create a discussion about use, and abuse, of the environment. (

There are also a number of recycled art activities for kids:

Modern day kids do more than construct snow sleds out of recycled Popsicle sticks. Children of all ages are taught the importance of recycling and the beauty of art, so why not combine the two.

An example of visually stimulating children's pieces is a spherical display covered completely in recycled marbles. The piece was constructed using glass marbles in varying sizes and differing color patterns. It is cheery and bright; however, it looked like it would be difficult to move.

Everything at The Imagination Factory, (, is made by reusing materials most people throw away. Activities include drawing, painting, sculpture, collage, papier-mâché, marbling, and crafts, and a special section for holiday art and crafts is featured.

A Trash Matcher helps visitors find appropriate art activities for the solid waste they have available, and a feature called the Badge Matcher allows Brownies, Girl Scouts and their leaders to quickly locate art activities that help satisfy badge requirements. Recently added is the Project Matcher, which is designed to match many of the site's activities with 4-H projects and those carried out for school social studies and science fairs.

Trashasaurus Rex, a giant dinosaur made of solid waste, heads the site's Public Relations Department, and there are numerous links to other art and environmental sites in the Research and Development Department. A discussion of landfills is located in the Education Department, and it's linked to Trash a Pizza! The activity shows visitors how to make a papier-mâché model of a pizza with solid waste toppings. The pizza is divided into nine segments or categories, and the toppings or trash represents the composition of American landfills.

A kids' project using recycled materials that can be tried at home is "Creating Colorful Coasters."


Lids from margarine or yogurt containers

Old greeting cards, postcards, fabric, wrapping paper or magazines



Water-based sealer


Place a lid over top of a greeting card, magazine page, or piece of fabric and trace around the lid with a pencil. Cut out the shape just traced and glue it to the lid. Or cut out many tiny pieces of greeting card fabric or magazine pages and glue them onto the lid similar to a collage. Finally, once the glue has dried, seal the coasters with water-based sealers to protect them from moisture. (

But what about adults? Exactly what are these green artists creating for the above-18 crowd?

Common pieces of recycled art are wind chimes and yard art pieces constructed from mainly metal scraps. Yard art varieties are endless with everything from abstract metal sculpture pieces that are reminiscent of a thrift store droid to recycled bathtubs with a mosaic made of recycled pieces embellishing the outer rim. The sculptural droid like characters have miscellaneous parts, in all shapes and sizes, inter-connected to resemble some sort of futuristic and eco-friendly being.

Some other recycled pieces include:

American Novelty Quilts: Quilters played with incorporating industrially produced items into the design. The use of cornmeal or tobacco sacks, bank coin bags, men's overalls, and blue jean pockets all speak to the quilters' ability to challenge necessity with wit and ingenuity.

Clarence and Grace Woolsey in Iowa "Caparena," an environment of over 400 bottle-cap constructions--little figurines, animals, a full-size bicycle, and a wishing well.

Ray Cyrek, a retiree in Florida, used thousands of aluminum pop tops to construct lawn ornaments in the form of snowmen, windmills, angels, and butterflies, covering the entire property in front of his trailer.

Chinese refugees who arrived illegally in the United States in 1994 and were detained in federal prison, created American Eagle "freedom birds" out of woven magazine paper and toilet paper mache during their incarceration.

Another artist thinking outside the corrugated cardboard box is Jamie Marraccini. The 'Gum Artist'. This gum artist has created more than 30 pieces using more than 35,000 pieces of recycled, chewed gum and he does it all for the love of gum.

Having started by doing all the chewing himself it became apparent that he needed help and the volunteers came knocking. The gum is collected and aged and those that do not rot are used in future works. Apparently, some hygiene issues affect the lifespan of the gum. Many of the works are abstract in nature and contain a broad variety of color. One piece in particular, titled Home, is reminiscent of a Claymation figure that had come across something radioactive. They are quite interesting to look at though it is hard not to think about where the gum originated. To check out some of the gum pieces go to Start chewing.

Italian sculptor Enrico Prometti turns junk into jewelry/sculpture pieces, which resemble artifacts from ancient Egypt. Topy Labrys, also Italian, creates art objects--jewelry, hats, purses, and strangely formed "lily pads"--out of recycled plastic, as part of a mega project, "Stone Relics from the Year 3000." And Ken Butler, an artist/musician living in New York, has made hundreds of musical instruments out of objects found on the street--chair backs, brooms, screwdrivers, washboards and bicycle wheels. Butler plays the instruments, which exist also as sculptures evocative of Picasso and Bracque's guitar collages.

Another artsy perspective and initiative of this whole recycle and art theme is a campaign for recycling that features artwork aptly titled TRASHed: the art of recycling. The TRASHed campaign is an event-based effort to encourage attendees to recycle by creating an artistic environment. Each campaign features 96-gallon plastic recycling bins that have been painted by artists in accordance with some given theme.

At the 2006 Virgin Festival, in Baltimore, artists were given the opportunity to paint recycle bins in the theme of all films by John Waters, local celebrity and Baltimore native. Painted bins were also featured at the 2006 Coachella show, Sundance and X Games 12. At these events, the trash bins are left bare and the recycling bins become works of art to provide no-nonsense recycling bin recognition and increase recycling efforts at event where waste can be astronomical. Who knew recycling could be so cool?

While recycling is commendable and, as is the message spread, necessary, not all recycled art is as visually stimulating as brightly colored gum creations and very cool, artist painted recycling bins. Some of it is not for the average art connoisseur. The definition of art varies and there are all sorts out there.

What exactly is weird to one may be fascinating to another. One mans trash is another mans treasure.

The entire theme here is recycling for the sake of art. From wind chimes to gum, there is a multitude of methods for an artist to do his or her thing while keeping Mother Nature in mind. That is the beauty of art. The fact that the boundaries of art are not confined within some common moral or objective standard is what makes it great. Art is primarily undefined until it is created and even then, opinions run rampant.

So the next time take a moment to think about where an amazing piece of art originated. Closely inspect the medium. It could be something dropped in the trash last week.

Create Your Own Recycled Art

Anyone can create a found object art sculpture. It is fun, easy, and affordable. Children will enjoy dismantling broken toys, old radios, old VCRs, and old computers with adult supervision. These can be used to create wild science fiction sculptured characters!

Your sculpture materials can be attached to an old piece of wood. Paint the wood or wrap it in tin foil to brighten its appearance. Super glue works well for attaching almost anything. Don't overlook hammers and nails or screwdrivers and screws for attaching materials. Again, adult supervision is necessary.

To get some ideas and spark creative processes look through an encyclopedia, a search engine, or an art text for examples of found object sculptures. You can add paper, wire, tin cans, and straws to your sculpture. Use old clothing. Broken dishes with pretty patterns can be used. Beware of sharp edges around small hands and fingers, however.

Create a found object sculpture for your child's room out of discarded favorite toys, out grown clothing, and old photographs. This may become a valued keepsake. Work on it with your child and then hang it in his/her bedroom.

Try to create animals out of found objects. Build an elephant based around a section of hose for a trunk. Use an old piece of fun fur to begin sculpting a mouse. Use pipe cleaners and an old bean bag to build a "safe" porcupine!

Think colors. Use black and white newspaper text to create a zebra. Use bright colored vegetable labels to build a rainbow. Use discarded yarn scraps to create kittens or spiders.

Think texture and form. Save packing materials and build foam peanut people. Use sand paper squares to create scratchy beards. Cut and fold construction paper to make grass or trees.

When you have completed your project, start looking for adults and children's art shows in your area. You may have a masterpiece on your hands. Show it off!

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