From garbage to gallery: How artists mine your junk

Recology San Francisco, a disposal and recycling company, urges artists to create from discarded materials. Here's what we saw when we joined them at the dump.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
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Leslie Katz
4 min read
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I'm at a giant dump, where I'm staring at a 20-foot-high mountain of junk that practically fills a 47,500-square-foot warehouse. I can make out splintered wood planks, greasy mattresses, hunks of tile bathtubs, fractured plastic lawn chairs and dusty DVD players.

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Nathan Byrne created this strange anemone-type creature from a fiberglass planter and medical pipettes, all plucked from the public dump.

Recology San Francisco

I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed. It's not every day I face a wall of garbage.

Carrie Hott and Cybele Lyle seem unfazed. Wearing steel-toe boots, hard hats, safety glasses and gloves, they march along the side of the pile, casually plucking objects from the heap and tossing them into their industrial-size shopping carts like they've been doing this for months.

They have.

The two are nearing the end of their artist-in-residence program at Recology, a San Francisco-based disposal and recycling company that gives Bay Area artists four months of 24-hour access to discarded materials (aka junk), a $1,200 monthly stipend and a studio space to convert their finds into art. More than 120 professional artists and 30 student artists have completed Recology's program so far, since 1990. The goal, says Recology, is to get people thinking about conservation, art and the environment in new ways.

For sure, the artists who scavenge for supplies approach the creative process differently than they would otherwise. Instead of planning their materials in advance, their work is a serendipity of discoveries found in thousands of tons of junk.

"You don't know what you'll find when you come here," says Lyle, 44, who never worked with scavenged materials before. "The first few weeks I was terrified. I was so outside of my comfort zone I had no idea what I would do."

The artist, who's hustling to finish a room-size installation built from found fabrics and household items in time for a public exhibit that opens Friday, zeroes in on a cheerful bolt of fabric covered in bright red, green, blue and yellow lambs. She grabs it from the rubble and places it in her cart next to a wooden magazine rack and a stack of plain paper. She tells me she's fascinated by domestic items that offer a glimpse into strangers' homes.

"I didn't know how much I'd be drawn to the stuff that's more personal and intimate," she says.

Filled with lace, iridescent hanging fabric and chairs painted in rainbow and metallic hues, Lyle's Recology studio has an almost cozy feel. Hott's, on the other hand, looks like a Best Buy storage space littered with monitors, headphones, CDs and endless tangles of cords.

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Carrie Hott's eerie soundscape plays audio culled from the trash, including a white-noise machine track, a Joy Division mix tape and recordings of whales and dolphins.

James Martin/CNET

For her art piece, Hott, 35, removed the plastic casing from cassette decks, VHS players and karaoke machines to expose their guts, but kept them functional so they can still play audio through scavenged speakers. Mounted on a blue platform, the dissected gadgets create an eerie e-waste soundscape that explores electronics' relationship to consumers and the environment.

"I have an interest in electricity and electronics and the way they mediate our experience," Hott says.

The artists take daily trips to the public disposal area, sometimes more than once, to pick through the stuff San Francisco throws away. Nathan Byrne's Recology studio, a shipping container, overflows with evidence of his frequent scavenging. There's a camper top, a cathode-ray TV, broken mirrors, theater chairs from the '40s, bike tires, a basketball, stacks of books, spools of thread and a taxidermied moth.

For the upcoming exhibit, Byrne is constructing a series of 12 light-based sculptures that reference science and nature through recurring forms suggestive of cells and other organisms. For one piece, he's turned an opaque fiberglass planter into an odd sea anemone by drilling holes in it and inserting multiple medical pipettes.

"I have enjoyed the improvisational element of the searching and discovery," says Byrne, who's 41 and an undergraduate in studio art at San Francisco State University. "I also enjoy the limitations of the situation, which spurns me to problem-solve and experiment."

What a dump! An artist's view from the junk pile

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And has the experience changed any of the artists' thinking on conservation?

"It's made me not want to buy things so much," Lyle says. "You just see this constant cycling of stuff, and so much good, nice stuff."

Hott has always been passionate about recycling, but now, even more so.

"Seeing how many reusable items are thrown away every day has ... definitely strengthened my belief in reuse," she says. "I have a list in my head of things thrown away most often that I see differently now."

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