Upcycling Creatively: The Importance Now

If it wasn’t for the creative reuse of garbage, one of the most beloved characters in children’s literature would have been nothing more than a plateful of bacon. In the children’s book Charlotte’s Web when Wilbur’s life is in danger, his farmland companions employ every resource possible to save him from certain death. When things seemed at their darkest for Wilbur, his community got creative and took social action by presenting found text in a new way to assure his continued existence. Anthropomorphic upcycling made the simple country folk in E.B. White’s classic novel think differently and reimagine their value systems. The farmer Zuckerman didn’t know he was looking at garbage, he just knew that what he was seeing was convincing, and that is the power of upcycling.

Upcycling was a term coined by Reiner Pilz in 1994 when trying to explain, in one word, how recycling was flawed.

Recycling… I call it downcycling. They smash bricks, they smash everything. What we need is upcycling… where old products are given more value not less.Reiner Pilz

Pilz explained that when most materials are recycled they lose some of their original value. He went on to elaborate upon the need to rethink what is seen as waste, and find ways to reuse these items that will either retain or enhance their value. This ‘more from less’ sort of thinking has been an integral part of the art world for about one hundred years, starting with Marcel Duchamp’s use of the found object, which takes commonplace objects and turns them into art.

It is through the work of the early 20th Century Dadaists that I first gained an appreciation for the reuse and reimagination of old images and text that I use in my own art.


"Freedom: Dada Dada Dada, a roaring of tense colours, and interlacing of opposites and of all contradictions, grotesques, inconsistencies: LIFE." Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto, 1918.

"When I write Ideal, Ideal, Ideal, Science, Science, Science, bang bang, bang bang, bang bang, I have more or less accurately summed up progress, the law, morality and all the other things that quite a number of intelligent people have written about in books, discussed and, finally concluded that everyone has been dancing to their own bang bang." the essayist, poet, and performance artist Tristan Tzara

"The Dadaist does not object to advertising. Quite the opposite, but the collision of all the different slogans is the only thing he values. He joins in! Not as an equal with his own slogans, because the nihilistic Dadaist has no positive slogans. If need be he will make bang bang with other peoples’ slogans." artist and art critic Jacob Bendien

"We, members of the Dada movement, merely hold up a mirror to the times." the Dada artist Kurt Schwitters, in the first edition of his magazine Merz

"Dada means nothing. We want to change the world with nothing." Richard Huelsenbeck

"… the dancing spirit about the morality of the earth" Richard Huelsenbeck, in Dada Almanac, 1920

"Dada . . . wants over and over again movement: it sees peace only in dynamism." Raoul Hausmann

"It’s too idiotic to be schizophrenic."Carl Jung

"It’s not Dada that is nonsense – but the essence of our age that is nonsense." The Dadaists

The use of collage in my work showed me that reinvention is just as original as invention itself, taking ephemera and making it art has always been very satisfying.

This is art by James Meyer.

Cradle To CradleFinding the potential use in what might otherwise be easily discarded is not unique only to the art community. In 2002, William McDonough and Michael Braungart completely reinvented the book when they were able to publish Cradle to Cradle, a totally waterproof “treeless” book that looks and feels like top quality paper, but is actually made from plastic resin. In the book, McDonough and Braungart seek to revamp and transform the industrial world through the use of ecologically intelligent design. The authors see recycling as a vast industrial process that still creates waste and needlessly uses energy. The answer seems to be the reuse of materials in the least industrial means possible.

"How can we support and perpetuate the rights of all living things to share in a world of abundance? How can we love the children of all species — not just our own — for all time? Imagine what a world of prosperity and health in the future would look like, and begin designing for it right now." William McDonough and Michael Braungart, in Cradle To Cradle

Bloomberg Philanthropic is one corporation that is not only making upcycling a priority they are making it their decor. A year ago Bloomberg executives commissioned artists to turn the corporation’s waste into furniture and art installations. Computer mice, cables, keyboards, and pallets that would have once been discarded were used to completely redesign the company’s interior.


Pallets were turned into conference room furniture, computer mice were made into chandeliers, and old computer monitors were transformed into a digital pond that plays an animation of pond creatures continuously over its floor mounted screens.

Bloomberg Philanthropic is just one example of the expanding ecological intelligence and global awareness that is taking definite shape in 2011.

Since early 2011, New York art galleries have hosted shows titled… Upcycled: Products made from plastic post-consumer waste, Todd Knopke CEC (Changing Everything Carefully), Appropriated Objects, and simply… TRASH.


Left: Three vessels made by Shari Mendelson, from discarded plastic bottles, hot glue; 2009.

Right: Tyrome Tripoli’s Garden, found metal, plastic pieces, wood; 5′ x 5′ x 10".

Todd Knopke’s U Loop 2, R U OK, acrylic paint, Bandaids, buttons, fabric, ink, permanent marker, photo iron-on transfer, thread, trimmings, watercolor,
zippers; 11.6′ x 31′, 2010.

Richard Lund’s Yellow Green Square.

Al Wadzinski’s Trail of Beers.

New York’s Festival of Ideas for the New City hosted a successful upcycling workshop which was free to those who brought their own materials to use. The workshop showed those interested in upcycling just how to take post-consumer waste and reimagine it as sustainable works of art. In addition to upcycling art shows and workshops the internet remains a valuable resource for artists looking to engage in ecologically intelligent mediums for expression. Meetup.com is home to the Portland Artists Social Guild, a cooperative community who meets each month to share their art and methods in a supportive group setting. Last month’s (June 2011) theme was ‘Upcycled Art’ and, much like the New York workshop, the group found creative ways to breathe new life into the scraps they had to share.

One inspiration for the Portland Artists Social Guild’s upcycling month was local artist Bonnie Meltzer. Bonnie is an artist stimulated by the objects she finds. She says that these objects give her the groundwork to construct her ideas. She calls her art “very mixed media” and through this medium made the Travel Portland Sustainability Award which was presented to Portland’s City Commissioner in 2008.

Bonnie Meltzer’s 2008 ‘It’s not easy being green’ Award, presented to Portland Oregon’s Office of Sustainability… made completely of found objects.

Bonnie makes art that uses repurposed materials to comment on land use, economics, and global warming while maintaining a humorous and personal edge. Bonnie Meltzer and her art have endured for three decades, and her ever increasing popularity shows that her own sustainability is on the increase.

Another key figure in the Pacific Northwest’s move to increase ecological intelligence through the arts is Ruby Re-Usable, otherwise known as Diane Kurzyna. Diane is an Olympia, Washington artist and mom who has been bringing her interest in creative reuse to the next generation of upcycling artists for over twenty years.

Ruby Re-Usable sharing with 3rd graders how to make Trash Trolls… part of Olympia, Washington’s Waste Resources recycling and composting outreach education program.

Diane teaches kids all over Washington as a state-approved artist in residence. She is one of many community leaders bringing the creative reuse of materials into the school classroom. Since the mid-90’s, programs such as Eugene, Oregon’s MECCA (Materials Exchange Center for Community Arts) and California-based T4T (Trash for Teaching) collect and redistribute industrial materials for creative reuse. Diane is very passionate about environmental issues, which a main reason she has dedicated her time to increasing awareness of sustainable creativity. She is able to keep busy while keeping the youth of Washington informed on the issues she is so passionate about.

Passionate and busy are two excellent words to describe another Portland Artists Social Guild favorite, Shari Elf, who I was lucky enough to be able to exchange e-mails with recently. Shari considers upcycling to be “a philosophical way of looking at (her art),” but prefers to tell people that she makes art from trash. When I asked her where her tireless inspiration comes from, she explained, “I have always found trash more interesting, a more engaging place to start a creation for me, as an old board or smashed can already has some wonderful things going on with it unlike a boring white canvas.” Her junk creations have been embraced by television and film actors, comedians, and famous art collectors. Her work has also been featured on film. Shari enjoys the freedom and creativity found in junk; however, for her it’s not about trying to be environmentally aware, it is about having fun.

The flying earthling says, "We can band together and make positive changes on our planet."

Of all the artists I have mentioned so far Sandhi Schimmel Gold is the most adamantly an “upcycler,” Sandhi does not make mixed media, recycled, or junk art. “Upcycling, definitely,” is how Sandhi described her art to me by phone, “I don’t make collage.” Sandhi sees her work as “using something of no value to make something of great value.” Sandhi uses the most ephemeral of ephemera to make her art: junk mail, calendars, and packaging. She makes mosaics which she paints over in a process very similar to that developed by Picasso and Georges Braque which transforms paper waste into modern art. Sandhi’s art creates no waste and is totally hand-made from beginning to end. When you Google image search “upcycled art,” it is Sandhi’s art that will be the first that you see, at least for now.

Another highly thematic artist working with upcycled goods today is Virginia Fleck who creates site specific artworks for many prominent ecologically intelligent building developments including the US Embassy in Rwanda, children’s hospitals in
Nashville, TN, and Whole Foods Global Headquarters in her current city of Austin, TX.

Virginia Fleck’s Spin Cycle, 3 circular light boxes made of recycled plastic bags, resin, plexi aluminum, neon light; 55″ x 55″ x 3″. Spin Cycle illuminates at sunset, and is located in the three pedestrian rest areas on the 5th Street wall of Whole Foods Plaza.

Virginia creates mandalas from plastic bags that are vibrant and inspired. The mandala is commonly associated with the Hindu and Buddhist religions as a symbol that invokes sacred space. Virginia Fleck’s work can be found around art exhibitions and ecologically conscious constructions worldwide.

A year back I received a personal message from a friend telling me that I have to see Nick Gentry’s work, they said, “trust me, you’re going to go nuts.” When I clicked the link to the
London-based artist’s website I was amazed. In the next week I received somewhere in the neighborhood of fifteen more e-mails and messages about Nick and his artwork. Nick Gentry creates his art from floppy discs, cassette tapes, Polaroid’s, and many other forms of archaic media. The discs and cartridges are arranged and painted over with many of the pieces still labeled saying things like “Audio Galaxy” or “Modem Upgrade: Laptop.” Media formats fall into disuse so rapidly these days that artists like Nick should have no trouble continuing to inject the permanence of art into these little outmoded bits of plastic.

Like most of the artists in this article I utilize what is accessible in an attempt to create something exciting and new, while minimizing the need for fresh materials. Just like Shari Elf, I am more inspired by junk than by a blank canvas, and I agree with all the artists’ need to create something that is timeless from objects that most people just consider useless. The ideas presented by me or any of these artists might not seem completely new, but they are ecological, modern and artistically innovative. These artists are taking the next step in found art and making ecologically intelligent creative decisions that are humble and radiant. I am not trying to convert the entire art world into upcyclers, as this would be impossible; however, I would love for artists to see all of these talented individuals working with repurposed materials and think of how they can do more with less.

To find out more about the author of this article, James Meyer, and to see more of his art, please refer to the James Meyer Collection.

* Content within blockborders and blockquotes and certain images added by Troy Boylan.

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