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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Green Art

Air Date: Week of

Lex Gillespie reports on artists who are diving into garbage dumpsters to scavenge for materials they can turn into works of art with an environmental message.


CURWOOD: Dumpster diving may not seem like an activity that would inspire artists. But then again, the art world has never hesitated to show us our trashy side. So today, we celebrate those intrepid bands of visual artists who take discarded objects and turn them into artworks with a green message. From Washington, D.C., Lex Gillespie has this report on this twist of recycling: Environmental Art.

(A milling crowd)

GILLESPIE: A garbage can sits in the corner of a gallery at the student center at the University of Maryland. But don't toss anything in it. This trash pail is a work of art. It's called "Garbage in Bloom." Out of it grows a silver plant made of metal, with some dazzling flowers.

BRANDOFF: The stem is out of a metal trash can, which is about three feet tall, which I actually found in the trash.

GILLESPIE: Artist Rachel Brandoff is the object's creator.

BRANDOFF: And then I assembled all sorts of scraps of wood and wire, and I made the flowers out of soda cans. And I used champagne corks as the center, the pistil in the flowers, and painted them just a little bit. And everybody thought I was crazy for wanting to save all these soda cans and scraps of wood and metal and what everybody else thought was just trash. And I kept saying: Trash can be art! It can be, one day it will be art!

GILLESPIE: Turning trash into art is precisely the idea of the Art of Recycling, a recent exhibit sponsored by the Citizens Concerned for a Cleaner County, a group in Prince George's County, Maryland. The 27 artworks on display are made of recycled materials by local high school and college students. On one wall hangs an old pink toilet seat that frames a painting of the deep blue sea. Nearby is a square human figure whose torso is empty boxes of Cheerios and Cocoa Puffs. And towering over visitors at the exhibit's entrance is a nine-foot giraffe made of coffee tins, rags, beads, bottles, and cans. These works are all examples of a popular trend: environmental art, which is distinguished by both its message and materials. Some of this art explores ecological themes, while other objects are fashioned from recycled elements. Recycling has even inspired rap musicians.


MAN: The workers first take out the things that were tossed in by mistake in the recycling bins. For material, keep on streaming in, a powerful magnet gets the steel and tin...

GILLESPIE: This recycling rap was included in a video called "Good Garbage."

MAN: "... of one thing we are now most certain. The heavier glass falls off to one side.Plastic and aluminum take a separate ride..."

GILLESPIE: The song and video were co-produced by Leila Cabib. Three years ago she organized a show of fellow enviro-artists in Glen Echo, Maryland. On display were masks made from computer circuit boards, and paper woven from tattered blue jeans.

CABIB: What I think was successful about the show was that the work was primarily art. The environmental part of it came in, in the sense that these artists are resourceful and inventive people who are always looking for ways to save money on the materials that they use. And that's why they go to scrap yards and try to find things that are cheap or free. So perhaps their environmental purposes are secondary to their economic purposes (laughs).

GILLESPIE: The use of recycled materials by artists is really nothing new. Neither is art inspired by the environment. The crafts of Native Americans have always embodied their respect for nature. Quilters of course rely upon discarded fabric for their colorful mosaics. And the found art movement turned animal skulls and rusty bike parts into abstract sculptures. But what's different about the current environmental art movement is that artists want their work to be educational.


GILLESPIE: Soledat Salome, a mixed media artist, sands a display case at her studio in Baltimore, Maryland. Salome creates large installation pieces that mix gardening with painting. She has a green thumb in addition to an artist's eye. One of her works, called The Living Painting, is a huge container overflowing with plants set against a canvas filled with abstract shapes.

SALOME: Why do we always walk into a beautiful space and we see a little pot with a plant and a painting separate? I wanted to make both work together.

GILLESPIE: A native of Chile, Salome draws upon her experiences growing up in Latin America to design her pieces. Her subtle, abstract works aren't an in-your-face kind of political art. But Salome says they were influenced by the environmental destruction she's witnessed firsthand throughout Latin America.

SALOME: I have been pretty sad to see, when I went to the rainforest a couple of years ago, I found that people were burning right and left like these beautiful cathedrals of bamboo that they have, what? Two hundred, 300 years. And it's just being burned out for the hell of it, just burned. So, I mean I think people should really think what they're doing and have more respect for their surroundings. These were the two elements: function, and at the same time nature integrated with my work.

GILLESPIE: To create one piece, Salome went exploring deep into an abandoned copper mine outside Caracas, Venezuela, with a group of sculptors.

SALOME: And we were like in these mines for ten days, and all the artists had to take all the waste materials from the mines and surroundings and create something. So you can find really incredible pieces. And so, a lot of artists used beautiful metal pieces that were there, and everyone created something different.

GILLESPIE: With the mine's debris, Salome built an abstract sundial. Her distinctive mix of materials and themes has won critical acclaim, and her works have been displayed at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.

(A woman sings)

GILLESPIE: And they've served as backdrops for the Baltimore Opera.

(Singing continues)

GILLESPIE: So far, however, there has been only a handful of major shows featuring environmental art, like that of Soledat Salome. Most of the art produced remains at the community level.

(Singing continues)

GILLESPIE: For Living on Earth, I'm Lex Gillespie in Washington.



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