Art Resources

The ECSTASY of Making Art, Not Waste

Written by Sven Eberlein

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

– Albert Einstein

Father and Child at the falls

This is crossposted from my post at daily kos for the E.C.S.T.A.S.Y. series — End Consumption, Save The Air & Sea, Y‘all! A support group and discussion forum for those who want to kick the habits of consumption that are damaging the world we live in.

Just as wars are often the result of our failure to find more creative ways to resolve our conflicts, many of the environmental problems we are facing in this world today are due to the lack of imagination. So much of the energy and resources we use in the world and especially in the U.S. are simply wasted.

The era of cheap oil during the past century gave us humans a temporary glimpse of what it would be like to live outside our means, lavishly burning borrowed energy that took millions of years to form. It’s this false sense of luxury and abundance that enabled the very idea of “waste,” marking the things that don’t suit our immediate needs as inherently worthless. Bathing in our perceived state of cornucopia, our acquired habit of throwing things “away” has given us license to forget their very existence.

Or in other words:

Waste only exists because we’ve taught ourselves to believe that waste exists.

Granted, it’s not just our own fault. The consumerist and disposable culture we live in did not come about by accident. We’ve been beckoned and trained to waste and dispose by entire industries that profit from our blind consumption. So even if you’re not one of those who needs a new toy every month, the planned obsolescence with which almost all products have been designed for the last fifty plus years has made us all into helpless participants in manufacturers’ schemes to buy and get rid of ever more things ever more often.

It’s a testament to the triumph of corporate and industrial marketing that it has become normal for us to throw everything “away” without second thought. In the ultimate expression of mass amnesia, we have accepted the premise that an object’s life and meaning starts at purchase and ends in the trash bin. It’s a rather nasty habit, and just like smoking, it’s slowly killing us.

This complacency and acceptance around living so far beyond the planet’s means is what’s most disconcerting. Not unlike the “banality of evil” — the idea that people will accept injustice and do all kinds of damage if it’s considered normal — the lack of outcry and resistance to this systematic waste and depletion of the earth’s precious gifts is at the core of the problem.

The good news is that bad habits can be broken, injustices overcome, behaviors changed. We’ve seen it throughout history that “the way things are” can turn into “the way things should be” if we humans imagine the unimaginable.

And who better to bring about change, to help us envision the ways in which the world could look differently, than artists and creative spirits?

Let me take you on a tour through a world of trash that isn’t really trash, where every “thing” has meaning and beauty if looked at from a different angle.

Artist In Residence Program (AIR) at the SF Dump.

A little while ago I took a trip to the San Francisco transfer station to find out what happens on the other end of our squeaky clean consumer reality. One of the coolest and most inspiring part of our tour: A one of a kind Artist In Residence Program (AIR) that provides a four-month residency to local professional artists who create art from the city’s trash.

From a verdant hillside spotted with creatures made from trash to a three-acre sculpture garden, this was one of the most brilliant places I’ve seen in a while.

Talk about walking your (trash) talk!

and it seems so simple and sensible, as if our trashy habits are the fantasy and this place is the real world.

photos by Debra Baida & Sven Eberlein

I think this is what it comes down to, not only in regards to physical waste, but the rampant waste of energy, resources and biodiversity that has got us into all the ecological pickles we’re in:

Can we use our god-given creativity and inspiration to envision a world where every “thing” has inherent and lasting value? A world where garbage is defined as the lack of imagination rather than meaningless discarded matter?

Here’s an artist who is doing just that:

Albertus Gorman – Artist at Exit 0

Artist at Exit 0 Riverblog

For the last six years Albertus Gorman has been collaborating with nature at the Falls of the Ohio State Park. Using only objects found in the park, Gorman makes simple sculptures that he photographs on site and usually leaves to their fates. Among the more unusual material he uses is Ohio River altered expanded polystyrene foam, better known by the trademark name of Styrofoam. Gorman believes there is an environmental crisis occuring that art may help address. He cites his art in the context of life and advocates for the inherent creativity found in everyone.

alien ballet

the uncommon bluebill ……………. styro-turtle in shallow pool

potbelly’s face

mr. blue FuManchu

art & photos by Albertus Gorman

Another intersection of art, nature and urban debris that shows us that nothing is inherently worthless if we use our creativity and imagination is the Albany Bulb. I confess I love this former landfill more than any museum and go there whenever I need to be inspired and high on life.

Albany Bulb

The Albany Bulb is a former site for the disposal of construction debris in the East Bay city of Albany. After it closed in 1987, it became home and shelter to a transient community as well as a group of urban artists called Sniff who painted large driftwood murals and erected sculptures made from construction debris like concrete and rebar.

it is in these moments that the word “trash” loses its meaning…

and I reflect on how life on earth is like debris, coming from somewhere and not quite sure where we’re going, but every moment and every thing is sacred and precious.

photos by Debra Baida

But re-envisioning trash is not just purely aesthetic, it can be extremely functional. As I saw at the SF transfer station, so much of the stuff that gets thrown away is really still perfectly good material. Perhaps a missing part here or a malfunction there, but often they’re still complete objects that people just got bored with or no longer needed. What if we repurposed these things, giving them new spirit and life?

That’s exactly what our next two artists are up to:

Accessorize with Toys! Workshop

Accessorize with Toys Workshops began in 2006 with MakerFaire and has been going strong since, inspiring kids of all ages to create art and jewelry from old toy and game parts. San Francisco designers emiko oye and Shana Astrachan guide people in the process, providing basic jewelry tools and tips on making artworks with alternative materials.

Look at all the things kids can make jewelry out of:

and of course you can make new toys out of old toys…

and for adults, emiko and Shana have whole lines using LEGO®, precious plastics, and recycled materials, much of which they get from a cool place called SCRAP – a creative reuse center, store and workshop space.

earrings by emiko oye

Some may say it’s small fries in the larger battles of climate change and energy. I personally think that the way we relate to the natural resources we depend on is at the core of these larger battles. If we do not work on reclaiming the sacred in all things I have a hard time seeing how we will live in better harmony with the planet. Yes, we need laws, regulations, and big treaties, but we also need to personally reconnect with and embrace the parts of ourselves we’ve deemed undesirable and disposable.

Here are a few important links:

1. Annie Leonard’s crucial movie, The Story of Stuff.

The Story of Stuff

2. An invaluable tool for calculating the ecological footprint of your lifestyle, from the good folks at Redefining Progress. What’s your score?

3. The Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping

4. SCRAP – a creative reuse center, store and workshop space.
Donations of high quality, low cost, re-usable materials such as textiles, paper, jewelry findings, wood, buttons and plastics are collected from businesses, institutions and individuals then sorted, displayed and distributed by SCRAP for artists, educational and community groups.
For more creative reuse centers around the country, click here

What we value and how we express that which we value is ultimately linked to our own destiny. The earth is a reflection of us, and we are a reflection of earth. If we continue to look at Mama Earth’s treasures as cheap and disposable, we will make ourselves disposable. If we can shift our consciousness and learn to understand and respect the great value and interconnectedness of all things, we can be a great asset to this truly amazing ecosystem we live in, and continue to be for generations to come.


crossposted at Daily Kos

About the author

Sven Eberlein

Leave a Comment


  • This is WILD! Thanks for all the photos–they really communicate the message of this post–nothing is “waste,” creativity is possible everywhere. I can’t wait to show this info to my son who already makes stuff out of “trash,” and we’ve always thought of it as “cute.” This post just totally expanded my awareness of the larger implications how how we think about “trash.” Thank you!

    • very cool. We often think of being environmental stewards as acts of sacrifice when in reality life is so much more fun and fulfilling when we’re more engaged with the things that support our lives in the first place. And kids are great teachers, they haven’t “learned” to scoff at a few scratches and dents yet, but might be better able to see the creative potential in them.

  • Just a thought: Have you noticed that people seem to stop and stare longer at a construct/piece of art made of unconventional (a.k.a. recycled/trash) objects than they do most traditional mediums? In some way, these have become greater think pieces for us to interact with. They are part of our human consumer experience in ways that oil on canvas may not resonate for many.

    • Yes, I think it’s because we’ve trained ourselves to think about art as something far away from ourselves, something you have to go to a museum for and that the artists had to go to a fancy art store for to buy the supplies. So I think it’s surprising and refreshing when people run into art that was made with things they could have found in their street or their own waste basket. There’s something liberating and contagious about the idea…

  • Sven I’m inspired by what you are putting together here! I would really like to see more images from SNIFF. I think Debra has a point in her comment. I think how people “look” at art in general is also shifting. I’m sending you positive energy right now! Al

    • Great to see you here, Al. I’m not sure SNIFF are still around, well, I’m sure they are, but their whole story I think was always about staying somewhat obscure and “undiscovered.” Perhaps to remove a bit of the personality cult our society tends to erect around artists and keep the focus on the art and the place. Thanks so much for the positive energy, we can use all of it in this world we live in, and I’m passing it on!