Recycling, it's kind of old hat by now, huh? I am loving this word–kind of new to me–repurpose. Why do I like it? I love the notion that things have more than one purpose; I love the intentionality of the word, and I love the sense of action. Cycles remind me of inevitability: moons, menses, tides, and life. Purpose feels active, a verb in noun's clothing.
All year, along with the mini-bays (otherwise known as paper grocery sacks) in my pantry where the recycling collects, I've had another bag going at all times in the back hallway. I think it's a repurposing collection station, stuff that recycles, stuff that doesn't necessarily recycle, all of which Lindsay Fogg-Willits could use for the art classes she runs at Art Always (besides being a wonderful teacher, she's also a terrific artist). My kids–three thus far–have participated in her classes (held in Florence's Arts and Industries building), starting when she opened the studio in 2002. What's in the repurposing bag? We toss in everything from toilet paper rolls and paper towel rolls to egg cartons to clementine boxes to cool paper scraps, odd broken toy wheels, wood and fabric scraps, shoe boxes… When I pick kids up at class, I sometimes wander toward the unfinished sculptural creation spot toward the back of the classroom, where repurposed works-in-progress gestate. Lindsay's told me more than once that for some kids, working on these three-dimensional explorations is their main reason for coming to class. Whenever one of my kids–generally that'd be Remy, my six year-old–comes back with a repurposed sculpture, I can see why they are fascinated. I love the whimsy of the found objects coming together, the sense of inventiveness, and yes, purpose. One person's junk can be another person's art.
Art teacher (at the Smith College Campus School and Center for Early Childhood Education at Fort Hill) and Smith College professor, Cathy Topal, has written books (Beautiful Stuff! Learning with Found Materials) on educating children through this concept of "beautiful stuff." That work is heavily influenced by the educational philosophy of Reggio Emilia, which, as I understand it, works to let learning emerge from children's inquiries and interests. She's taught three of my kids (two both for preschool and kindergarten, the last one just for kindergarten). There is nothing like a found object self-portrait! Nothing. What is very clear from the parents' perspective, is how she uses found objects to broaden children's perspectives (or, more aptly, to support the perspectives that already exist within them).
It's so fascinating to me that recycling, which I feel like I had to learn, is a natural habit for my kids (most of the time). It's certainly in their consciousness differently than it is in my generation's, as a given, a fact of life (that, I think, is what they call progress). I'm also fascinated by how, since I have been slowly developing a new appreciation for things green and opened myself to exploring what sustainability means to me (a concept that is much larger than environmentalism, proper), I am jazzed by repurposed art in many of its iterations.
For example, I am completely intrigued by artist, Michael Zelehoski, whose show, (DE)CONSTRUCTIONS runs through this weekend at the Ferrin Gallery in Pittsfield. A painter as well, Zelehoski has created installations and two-dimensional works with found objects that seem careful and bold at once. In a Berkshire Living article, Alison McGee chracterizes Zelehoski's salvage process, taking items from home renovations or demolished buildings, as reincarnations; he "recreates them as abstract variations of their former selves." In a way, the work is a tiny bit haunting, with its echoes of objects' past lives. I think it's quite mesmerizing.
This past spring, I wrote an article about Holyoke furniture maker and artist Peter Dellert, whose incorporates found or salvaged wood and found objects into all of his work, from furniture to sculpture to collage. He uses both wood and other natural things–bark, leaves–as well as cans or glass lenses. His work so generously nods to all sorts of materials from a variety of sources, and reveals how something ordinary can transform into a beautiful object.
Probably the first person's found object art–and indisputably a master of repurposing–is Philadelphia artist, Isaiah Zagar. His mosaic work dovetails perfectly with his wife, Julia Zagar's inevitably broken objects at her gallery, the Eye's Gallery, which features contemporary Mexican pottery (and many other crafts, from Mexico and other countries). The couple has forged relationships with many craftspeople and some execute projects for Isaiah Zagar, based on his designs. Having made mosaic walls, entryways, and more in his buildings (gallery, garden, and home) and others' buildings, as well, he embarked upon creating an entire garden space of his work, Philadelphia's Magic Gardens (1020-1022 South Street). Visiting gallery and garden illuminates just how fully realized someone's vision can be. A word like whimsical, which you may first ascribe to his work, really falls short. His work is rich, fueled by passion and vision, and a streak of freedom few people can accomodate.
Repurposing isn't just an artistic concept, though. Years in the making, the Vandenberg project (part of Artificial Reefs of the Keys) began with the idea that an old navy ship, the Vandenberg, could be refashioned and then sunk as an artificial reef for the purposes of studying and supporting oceanic life. Talk about beautiful stuff, study war no more, and being able to learn about and care about the sea… The most apt verb to describe ARK: re-envisioning.
Clearly, we need more re-envisioning these days.
In this moment–call it, environmentalism-meets-economic-meltdown–the collective epiphany should be that by pooling resources and smarts and, actually, purpose, more can get done using less. All indications are that the collective epiphany is taking place. Locally, Commonwealth Center for Change (C3) is working to support nonprofits, small for-profits, artists and arts organizations by helping them find creative ways to deal with space, databases, administrative duties, and much more. In all sorts of places–nearby, from Holyoke to Pittsfield–there are groups forming to make collective efforts at boosting the cultural economy in their cities or towns or regions, groups like Cultural Pittsfield or Berkshire Creative or Friends of the Canalwalk in Holyoke. Local nonprofit, Green Northampton, has the tagline, More Community, Less Carbon. In essence, these various efforts acknowledge that within every purpose, there's the potential for repurposing as well. College consortiums, like the Five College consortium between Amherst, Hampshire, Smith, Mt. Holyoke and the University of Massachusetts, employ some of those same principles and there's every indication that for those schools within consortiums, tough economic times will strengthen shared ties (and ostensibly, on the bright side, bolster community between schools). Different perhaps from the more intentionally collective endeavors–worker-owned collectives or cooperatives, cohousing communities–are less formal endeavors, from partnerships to listserves. Neighborhoods use the internet to help keep one another posted (this happens in neighborhoods all over, in cities and towns, and rural communities) on everything from car break-ins to bear sightings to pooling use of snowblowers or lawn mowers.
I don't think what I'm describing is as simple as thrift, though. If anything, it harkens to a sense I remember hearing about and reading about of what took place in this country during both World Wars, a pulling together. I know enough peace activists to question starry-eyed patriotic nostalgia. I do believe, though, that there's a wonderful energy that comes from having like-minded people–not carbon copies of one another, not people with one single purpose or focus, but ones that overlap and intersect and inspire one another–corral their resources and ideas and networks. It's not like a bigger whole, exactly; it's as if the kaleidoscopic possibilities abound and the new infractions of light spin patterns before unseen and unforeseen. I think it's called transformation.