January 17, 2005

Artsy Debris in Our New Bathroom

Filed under: Art and About Recycling — admin @ 9:19 pm

I have two avocational passions – anything to do with art and reuse/recycling. Although once in a while the two become intertwined, I admit that don’t go dumpster diving specifically to create an art piece. And I generally get more satisfaction giving or donating an item to be reused or recycled by someone who has a vision rather than forcing an unwanted item to stay in my home to be reused or recycled by me. I participate in the circle of life by bringing other people’s unwanted stuff into my home.

Since the twain rarely meet, I don’t go looking for intersections of art and recycling. But a reuse/recycle lightening bolt recently struck our home and I’m now seriously energized about taking reuse and recycling to the artistic level.

In our home was a seriously dated 1950s bathroom with a rotting subfloor. My husband and I considered many options on how to deal with the space to make the necessary repairs, please our aesthetic sensibilities, and not completely sell our souls to consumer culture by throwing out all of the old just so we could have something new. But Lucifer came a-knockin’ and we did decided to gut the space and start over. Our guilt and anguish quickly gave way to excitement and anticipation, even though I’m sure in some celestial courtroom someday I’ll have to answer to my great-great grandchildren about why I chose to destroy the Earth.

To us, this wasn’t just a bathroom remodel. We were designing Art. And we wanted it to be Art that stood the test of time, in style, taste, materials and individuality. The one thing I admired about our pink 1950s bathroom is that is made a statement in 1958 and it made a statement in 2004. We just disagreed with what it was stating.

As we started to search for materials, I ran across a tile company in San Jose that made tiles from recycled materials. The Fireclay Tile Debris Series is a handmade terra cotta tile containing 50% post-consumer and post-industrial recycled materials designed specifically to reduce landfill. Included in the body of the tile is granite dust from sandblasted electronic parts, recycled brown and green glass bottles and windowpanes.

This is very cool on an intellectual level, but true art has to speak to the heart, and the Debris Series is fluent. The result of the recycled products mixing with the traditional terra cotta recipe is that the finished tile has the richest red-brown hue, and a slightly rough and rustic texture for those of us who prefer our design shabby-chic. When glazed, the Debris Series tiles have a luscious depth of color. Instead of being completely opaque, you can just barely see the recycled tile product underneath the glaze. The tile would not be what it is without the uniquely recycled foundation.

I admit, when I thought of recycled art before now, I thought of sculptures made from junkyard finds, or old plates and tiles broken to become mosaic elements. The original purpose of the recycled element is evident and often obvious, even in its newly artistic rebirth. What gives me those artistic goosebumps with the Fireclay Tile is that their artisans have transcended an intellectual exercise on recycling and reached me emotionally.

The new bathroom is only a few weeks old and I actually think about this stuff every time I go in there. We didn’t select the tile expecting it to inspire internal dialogues on art and ecology during a routine bathroom visit. Still, I’ve always advocated that you should have art in every part of your life.

November 11, 2003

Getting Comfortable with Unassuming Art

Filed under: Art and About Recycling — admin @ 9:23 pm

I approached the art show, “Street Chic: Reuse, Recycling and Art in Action” with quite a bit of apprehension. In celebration of America Recycles Day, the Shadelands Art Center in Walnut Creek had an exhibit last week of original art made from discarded materials some artisans from the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse salvaged after the Reuse and Cleanup Days in Central Contra Costa County. The Reuse and Cleanup Day in my neighborhood is one of my favorite days of the year when I liberate my family from unused items and clutter. I donated a large pile of sundry objects last year and with great satisfaction, I watched the truck take them away.

But there I was, nervously walking into the art show. For some reason, I didn’t want to come face to face with any of my own discarded stuff. When I give something away, I like to imagine it going on to a better life in the hands of someone who has a use for it. But actually seeing what that better life may be was somehow unsettling. What if my ex-stuff looked at me accusingly with betrayal in its eyes? I knew the odds of actually seeing something I had donated were astronomically small, but I had to be prepared for a confrontation if I did.

As soon as I walked into the show, I was relieved at two levels. First, I immediately could see nothing formerly owned by me. Second, the exhibit wasn’t avant-garde, interpretative art pieces where a tin can and a man’s suit are united with rivets in a statement about the industrial era. In fact, had the titles of the pieces not been in front of the art, I may have mistaken some of it for lobby furniture at the art center. For the most part, it was an exhibit celebrating the revival of everyday functional objects. The phrase which Dickens uses to title the first section of “A Tale of Two Cities” came to mind. The chairs, bench, shelving unit, screen and birdcage that comprised the exhibit had been “recalled to life.”

I came away a little underwhelmed, and more than a little hypocritical. I strongly espouse finding art in everyday life, but when I see an art exhibit full of chairs and shelves, it feels a little too much everyday.

While examining this hypocrisy, I remembered my freshman college roommate and her struggle to declare a major. She was a painter, but came to school planning to major in engineering. Her academic advisor suggested she consider product design because it fused art with the skill set of engineering. For those of us who watched objectively from the sidelines, product design was a perfect match for her. But my roommate had trouble resolving that artistic perspective and practicality needn’t be mutually exclusive. It took three years of soul searching, but in the end she became a product designer. And a happy one.

I came home from street chic and looked at the objects in my home which I have chosen to represent my style and taste. The entertainment armoire with the dentiled detail. The no-nonsense lines of my glider. The high stature of our captain’s pedestal bed. Somebody once held a pencil or a computer mouse and translated an idea from their brain onto a sheet of paper to communicate their creative inspiration for a piece of furniture. Then one day I saw that furniture and decided it was something I wanted to share my life with. The designer and I communicated through their work. That heart to heart communication is the essence of art and makes the designer an artist in my book.

I realized that art doesn’t necessarily have to wow us. It can be as comfortable and unassuming as a favorite couch. In fact, that’s the way it should be if we invite art into our everyday lives.

July 30, 2002

Giving Unwanted Items an Artful Home

Filed under: Art and About Recycling — admin @ 9:10 pm

Last month I won the Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. I didn’t get a letter from Ed McMahon, but I did get something in the mail that I consider to be just as valuable. Early last spring, tucked in the envelope with our garbage bill, was the flyer from Pleasant Hill Bayshore declaring that May and June were going to have free reuse/recycle pick-up days in Lafayette.

Hallelujah! A deadline to clean out the closets, garage and every other nook and cranny where Stuff with a capital S accumulates when I’m not looking and causes Clutter. One of my favorite hobbies is getting rid of Stuff we’re not using and finding a home for it with someone who might. The only thing I can’t figure out is how the Stuff keeps getting back in the house when I try so hard not to make it feel welcome.

I eagerly read the reuse/recycle flyer to learn which angels were bestowing such a wonderful gift on us all. The East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse was the responsible party. I learned that they especially like to receive donations of art and craft supplies, fabrics and school supplies, as well as household items and building materials, because they are a source of inexpensive creative inspiration for East Bay artists and teachers.

It is a cause particularly close to my heart. Sometimes on an unscheduled Saturday or a quiet evening at home, I scour my house for inexpensive creative inspiration the way some people raid the refrigerator for a satisfying snack. I open closets and drawers searching for items hanging around for no apparent reason but which could be part of a Greater Purpose. With leftover bits of wire, I made some flowers that “bloom” year round to give a hint of constant color to the garden. I went through a basket-collecting phase once, and now I’ve turned many of them into household decorations by stuffing some oasis from a long-gone flower arrangement in the middle and sticking in it everything from dried flowers to pretty painted people figurines I had received as a gift but had no idea what to do with. With scraps of fabric, I made fashionable rag dolls to “model” handmade doll clothes I had kept from my childhood, even though the dolls they were made for have long since been given away.

Most of what I make becomes part of my household décor for a few months, and then I get tired of it. Everything in my house has to have at least two functions, and just looking pretty is only one function. So what I’ve found is that the myriad thrift stores in Contra Costa who raise money for a variety of good causes have kindly accepted the donations of my little creations. It’s a win-win — I got my creative fix, made a treasure out of some trash in my house, and they raise a little money for their cause by selling it. Extremely satisfying.

So the free reuse/recycle pick-up day was as fabulous and exciting as I anticipated, but the true sweepstakes prize was awarded to me in July when my mom moved out of her house. After 30 years in one location, her Stuff had gotten very clever about finding safe havens in an otherwise clutter-free household. As I helped my mom empty closets and drawers, the piles in the living room got higher and higher with Stuff that had never been used, was from another era, was politely kept as to not offend the relative who had given it, or was just plain ugly, impractical or odd — to us. But, it was all in pretty good shape. I refused to let it go in the landfill so I called the Creative Reuse people and asked if we could bring it by. They were wary of the quantity and told us later that people cleaning out their houses often just bring in bags full of what even a non-profit committed to 100 percent reuse/recycle would consider garbage.

On a Friday morning, my mom, my 19-month-old and I pulled up in front of the Creative Reuse store in Oakland with an overflowing truck. We were given some dollies and asked to start hauling in the Stuff. Even my 19-month-old grabbed what he could and carried it inside. The Creative Reuse staff was ecstatic. They thought it was some of the nicest Stuff they had ever seen. They valued it at $300 for tax-deduction purposes, which pleased Mom because she thought it was worthless.

While the transaction was taking place, I had time to check out the Creative Reuse merchandise. I was impressed — nice stuff, well organized, some of it obvious overstock from other stores and completely new. Pretty much anything you could find at Michael’s Arts and Crafts Store at a fraction of the price, and with the added benefit that by buying from Creative Reuse, you are doing your small part to save the planet through your recycling efforts. I highly recommend all you artsy/craftsy folks make a pilgrimage to 6713 San Pablo Avenue.

Back at my house, the Stuff is already starting to fill the donation box again. Can anyone think of a clever project for a lifetime’s supply of defunct keys?