Cascade Observations: The ‘art’ of recycling

Comingling. It sounds like a new internet dating service, but the term refers to nothing approaching romance, unless you find recycling alluring.

Comingling is the mixing of all types of recyclable materials into one large container; if you live in the city of Hood River, think big blue bins. In the bins or at the transfer station, everything recyclable (except glass and corrugated cardboard) is comingled. This used to seem like a good idea.

I started recycling in the early 1970s when I joined the environmental club in high school. Our task was to collect recyclable materials, sort them, and sort them, and sort them before delivering them to places where the materials could be reused, turning old bottles, cans and newspaper into new products. In those days, there was NO comingling. Good recyclers were those who truly separated everything — plastic windows were removed from envelopes and the plastic discarded, labels were removed from cans, aluminum cans were crushed with a sledge hammer and no plastic was ever accepted.

Comingling has allowed us all to be lazy, and today we are paying the price. China, which used to accept Oregon’s unsorted recycling, will no longer do so. Too much of our recycling is contaminated with everything from dirty diapers to cans filled with bacon grease. Instead of resurrecting our recycled materials into new useful products, they are now being sent to a landfill near you until there’s a solution to this problem. The Tri-County Waste and Recycling program is working on it, and asks us to continue comingling, but with vigilance. A list of appropriate recyclable materials is available from them.

It’s easy to be discouraged by the tons of reusable materials that are never reused. Thankfully, a group of 20 artists now showing their creations at the Columbia Center for the Arts are finding ways to make art out of materials that most people consider garbage.

From artist Rene Westbrook, rusted sardine cans are transformed into homes for desert creatures made from other found objects. She writes in her artist’s statement, “The desert is a graveyard of relics, just sitting there waiting to be found.” Artist Jo Lundberg paints on everything from old bed sheets to retired snowboards. Sculptor Alan Root uses discarded farm and logging equipment. Kathleen O’Hern creates a writhing serpent out of beer bottle tops, and red Christmas light bulbs and bike chain are transformed into flowers by Deborah Lorang, who writes, “Finding beauty in things that are broken intrigues me. It’s a personal challenge to use discarded objects to make something inspirational. I love to spend time looking for rusted metal, driftwood, beach glass and even bones. These weathered fragments are my muse; relics with a history that I resurrect and conform into my unique art work.”

Indeed, all 20 of the artists find meaning and the muse in materials most people would throw away.

I am one of those 20 artists. I stopped oil painting many years ago when I couldn’t justify continuing to buy and use materials that were potentially harmful to me, and certainly harmful to the environment. I still feel guilty about the turpentine, cobalt blue paint and worse that I flushed down the sink while in college. I am probably personally responsible for a Super Fund site in upstate New York.

So instead of paint, I’ve found a new medium that inspires me as I try and live more lightly on the earth — emptied boxes that once housed crackers, cereal, soda pop, facial tissue and more. I cut the boxes up into small pieces and create mosaic images; the work reminds me of stained glass, tile and quilts. I often supplement my boxes with pieces of greeting cards; I used the signatures from get-well notes in a piece I made following breast cancer surgery. Sometimes, I search for letters and words in the materials, and include little verbal messages in my imagery. I thank an artist named Michael Albert (check out his website) for coining the name of this paper mosaic work “Cerealism.” It’s just right, a nod to collage artists from the past, with delightful word play that always makes me chuckle.

When I was invited to participate in the show, I had a dilemma. How could I “walk my talk” about making art from recycled materials when I needed to have the work be “exhibit ready?” I used to back my paintings with foam core, but Styrofoam was out. I searched my studio and found used poster board for backing. What about frames? Husband Jim to the rescue, who found miscellaneous chunks of wood in his shop. These pieces had history, filled with nail holes and stains that hinted of their past lives as building material cut-offs. My crafty husband, who can always find a second-life for everything, transformed the wood scraps into beautiful frames. The glass was a problem I couldn’t solve; old, scratched glass just wouldn’t work.

I did manage to go “frameless” on several pieces, when I made prayer flags out of used dryer sheets (I use them reluctantly when I do laundry, but they have saved many a sock or pair of underwear from getting stuck inside a pants leg or sleeve). The used sheets float gently, suspended from uncontaminated barbeque skewers.

Artist Sandra Choate creates large mosaic sculptures that incorporate everything from old doll heads to broken mirrors and scavenged vintage ceramic tiles. She writes, “I see my art as a vehicle for telling stories.” Indeed, this is the thread that connects all the artists in the show. The recycled materials are infused with stories, just waiting to be told. The exhibit’s artists compel us to look closely and think deeply before throwing away these stories. Who knows, the muse may be hiding inside, waiting for a moment of mingling.

“Back Talk: Recycled Art” is at the Columbia Center for the Arts in downtown Hood River through February. While there, be sure to check out the wonderful art by local Hood River Valley High School student artists. The students in the exhibit are Scholastic “Gold Key” winners; their work now goes on to a national competition.

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