In their book, Cradle to Cradle, authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart lament the one-way, cradle-to-grave model of our industrial system. The detritus in our landfills-upholstery, old furniture, computers, paper and food-is the end of the road for products made from material “that required effort and expense to extract and make, billions of dollars’ worth of material assets.” Yet once they’re in the landfill, the materials’ value goes to waste.
In San Francisco though, a good deal of our waste avoids that fate. The Board of Supervisors passed a mandatory recycling and composting ordinance in 2009, and our curbside recycling and compost pickup is free. Our compost feeds soil at local farms and wineries. Partially used cans of paint left at the household hazardous waste dropoff are available for free. All told, 77% of our waste is diverted from the landfill. The city hopes to reach its goal of zero waste by 2020.
And a select group of artists is also chipping away at the city’s waste stream. In their hands, used glass becomes icy sculpture; discarded fur coats become a husk of jackrabbits; Styrofoam becomes a full-scale (non-operational) Hummer; and engine parts, a gas pump, baseball bats, ten-speed bike handlebars, vacuum parts, a lamp, extension ladder parts, a garden soil aerator and golf caddy cart wheels are reborn as a giant mosquito.
These artists are part of an internationally known artist-in-residence program hosted by Recology San Francisco. Recology is the employee-owned company that handles San Francisco’s trash, recycling and compost collection and operates the 46-acre dump on the San Francisco/San Mateo county line.
Since 1990, more than 100 professional and student artists from the Bay Area have held four-month residencies at the dump, where they have created paintings, sculptures, photographs, installations and other works of art, according to program manager Deborah Munk. The artists comb through the public disposal and recycling facilities (not the contents of your black bins) and receive a stipend and full-time use of a large studio and stocked tool shop for the four-month residency.
Works of art are entirely dump-sourced. Nemo Gould, a 2007 artist, wanted to buy hardware to hold together his sculptures, like Guzzeler, above, and Impala. Program leaders asked him to hold off before buying anything, and days later an elderly man brought a toolbox full of nuts and bolts to the public disposal area, exactly what Gould needed. Beau Buck, a current resident artist, is using feathers in his pieces. The feathers come from raptors handled by the dump’s resident falconer (more on that in an upcoming UntappedSF article).
Munk generally receives about 100 applications each year, and an advisory board selects four to eight artists for the upcoming year. Artists are completely self-directed, although they’re asked to speak to tour groups that come through the facility. At the end of the residency, Recology hosts a public exhibition at the artist studio, adjacent to the dump. Visitors can sift through and claim materials that the artists gathered but didn’t use. Artists leave three pieces with the program for its permanent collection and off-site exhibits. Dozens of pieces from former residents are also on display in the dump’s three-acre sculpture garden.
The program grew out of a project by local artist Jo Hanson. In the 1980s, Hanson began a practice of sweeping the streets in her San Francisco neighborhood and making scrapbooks out of the random items she found. She involved kids in her practice and eventually pitched the idea of an artist residency program to Recology and the San Francisco Department of the Environment. Decisionmakers saw the program as a great way to promote reuse and educate about waste, particularly because curbside recycling had just begun. Recology has recently launched a second artist residency program, called GLEAN, at its Portland, Oregon, facilities.
The current residents are Karrie Hovey and Beau Buck. Hovey is a former industrial designer who is interested in “the bi-product of our buy-product obsession,” she says. One project she had outlined in her proposal has shifted during her residency, since she was not finding the retail packaging-foam and plastics-that she expected to find. “You have access to so much, but you’re also limited by what you find,” she says.
Hovey is using discarded books to create chrysanthemum-like blooms. She has also taken glass, crushed or broken it in different ways and fired it into bricks in the program’s glass kiln, experimenting with the ways that the glass takes on the uneven appearance of ice. She is also working with latex paint, taken from the household hazardous waste disposal area. She pours it onto glass, then peels it off to create strips and other pieces she affixes to plexiglass in grids and patterns. The results highlight our efforts to control nature and to map our world in exacting detail.
Buck is building an intimate greenhouse space with seating for two, using old French doors and Victorian windowpanes. Gathering the materials was hard, he says, because people will carefully pack these architectural pieces onto their trucks, then “throw it as hard as they can” off the trucks. For another project he is using melted-down, purified lead from a found box of bullets. His idea is to use the material, but separate it from the violent themes that the bullets suggest-a purification by reincarnation.
Buck is also creating a group of stuffed jackrabbits, inspired by a rock-and-roll legend about the burial of Gram Parsons in Joshua Tree. He has sewn them using everything from a pair of cowboy boots to an old fur coat, a back brace belt and a half-woven tapestry he pulled off of a discarded and broken loom.
“This series has really gone in the direction I wanted it to,” he says. “The materials are things I couldn’t get by looking for them.” He explains that the materials he could find at a thrift store or garage sale are too nice, but the discarded pieces have the tattered look he wants to capture.
We still produce a lot of waste in this city. Recology takes 60 truckloads per day to the landfill in Livermore, each truck holding about 25 tons. And most of that trash just isn’t going to be reborn as fine art. But by highlighting the value that remains in our waste, the artist in residence program produces lasting artwork that forces us to think about what we produce, consume and discard. It is a poignant illustration of the lessons of Cradle to Cradle and the ways that we can and should recapture the energy and effort that goes into producing what we ultimately toss away.
The exhibition featuring Hovey and Buck’s work will take place Friday, May 18, 2012, 5–9 pm and Saturday, May 19, 2012, 1–5 pm at the Recology studio at 503 Tunnel Avenue. This show will also feature student artist Calder Yates.