The concept of creative reuse aka upcycling, remaking or repurposing is not new. According to Grant Johnson, author of “1000 Ideas for Creative Reuse: Remake, Restyle, Recycle, Renew,” materials reuse has been around since medieval scribes scraped off and reused parchments, and the ancient Greeks melted down older bronze statues to make newer versions. Creative reuse, in its current incarnation, combines artistic expression with ecological responsibility served with a side of thrift.
In the hierarchy of what to do with our stuff, reduce should be the first action—quit buying so much stuff! Reduce means choosing to use or purchase things with care to reduce the amount of waste generated.
Reuse is different from recycling, where the products are broken down to its component parts and re-manufactured into new products. Creative reuse is also different from conventional reuse, where the product is used in its original purpose again.
Recycle means the conversion of a waste to form a new product.
Disposal is the magical ‘disappearance’ of all other trash to the landfill where most of it never, ever really goes away.
So have we piqued your interest to learn more about creative reuse? Wondering how to get started? The San Antonio Public Library is always a good resource for ideas and inspiration. Here’s a list of books complied by one of their helpful librarians.
“Modern upcycling: a user-friendly guide to inspiring and repurposed handicrafts for a trendy home”
“Reclaimed textiles: techniques for paper, stitch, plastic and mixed media”
“Vintage made modern: transforming timeworn textiles into treasured heirlooms”
“Creative recycling in embroidery”
“The Salvage Sisters’ guide to finding style in the street and inspiration in the attic”
“Trash formations east”
Quoted in the first paragraph, Grant Johnson’s book is full of marvelous art work pictures with corresponding materials list.
Several other hands-on avenues are also available. Leading the charge in San Antonio for creative reuse is spare parts founded by Mary Elizabeth Cantu in 2010. spare parts offers cultural and environmental sustainability, affordability and accessibility to the arts through education. A large variety of workshops and projects at schools and community wide-events are held throughout the year. Attending an event or volunteering with the organization can impart insights and instructions.
In addition there are many “maker” organizations and events popping up around town. The ‘maker culture’ invites people of all ages to be creative in a plethora of venues including—technology, DIY projects, artistic expression. Many of these projects are creative reuse. “Make San Antonio a creative hub for makers of all ages” is a good example.
Argentinian artist Elisa Insua calls her creative reuse art “immortalizing meaningless trash into works of art.” We agree.
Meredith Doby, Exhibits Director at The Children’s Museum/DoSeum, already knew Spare Parts was an excellent collaborating institution. “To give you an example,” she says, “at Christmas time we did a ‘Reverse Santa’s Workshop.'”
…Which, it turns out, is just as delightful as it sounds; kids got to dis-assemble toys collected and donated by Spare Parts, then created entirely new forms from them. For me, this is an ideologically significant scene to imagine, as well as a fun one. Reversing Santa exemplifies what Doby calls the “maker and tinkerer” mindset, for sure, but it also subverts the dictates of commercialism, but without ideological fanfare. It’s one thing to preach at kids that the holidays are more than just acquiring more objects. It’s quite another to encourage kids to reimagine objects. One has to do with attempting to thwart a kid’s desire (which rarely works); the latter, to ignite a kid’s imagination, sharpen their maker techniques, and to address a material problem through experimentation.
I wish I’d been allowed to take stuff apart and make my own stuff, rather than being given a Baby Alive but made to feel guilty about it. For one thing, Baby Alive was a nightmare; a dead-eyed, insatiable mechanized maw, whose only activities were taking in provided packets of gelatinous goo, and ersatz-pooping. Baby Alive allowed for very little imagination, except for the night terrors it induced. I feared it would come to life in the dark and eat my hair. If only I’d been allowed to take the horrible grinding ersatz mastication motor out of Baby Alive and enlivened something else with it. I could have made an EZ-bake garbage disposal. I feel things could have gone differently for me.
I’m being facetious, of course, except that I for-real remember Baby Alive with dread and guilt. Also, it’s still in existence in a landfill somewhere, I’m sure. Worse, I’m still afraid to take things apart; it was just never in my purview, as far as I understood. This has terrible (and possibly gender-aggravated) repercussions; I’m terrified to attempt minor car repairs, I throw things away that could be easily repurposed and made useful, and I buy stuff I neither need nor understand. Writ large… you see where this is going. Or has already gone. We’re all living in the consequences; Spare Parts and the DoSeum are helping to re-route the consumerist directive into a cluster of impulses that involve resource management, engineering, and multidisciplinary arts.
Meanwhile, “Junk Jam,” an exciting multimedia sound installation conceived with artist, teacher and mom Kara Salinas, is the next DoSeum/Spare Parts collaboration.
“The DoSeum wants to bring our mission of using recycled [reusable] materials into our programming,” Doby tells me. “We have a gallery called Sensation Studio that studies the science of light and sound.” Through materials collected and provided by Spare Parts, the DoSeum and Salinas are constructing a mixed-media sounds sculpture that kids can play.
(You can see a video here of the Foundstrument, an experimental playable instrument at the Providence, RI Children’s Museum, (scroll down a bit to find it): http://artolution.org/media/video/)
Perusing Salinas’ Facebook page turns up a call for materials image of intriguing diversity; metal bells, cardboard tubes, toy xylophones and kiddie pianos, wind chimes, milk bottles, and colored wooden blocks. Spare Parts also launched an appeal for reusable materials to be creatively re-purposed. According to the project description, the many objects “would be grouped similarly but have different tones. And of course, it must be able to withstand constant play by children.”
The result should be up and running later this Spring.
This is enthralling. Partially because I’m dying to hear a playable sculpture manipulated by children, who in addition to being disruptive disease vectors and largely unemployed in this country, are natural musicians. Secondly, a kid who is encouraged to use pre-existing and discarded materials, will. And if they continue to be encouraged, they won’t stop there. And they’re less likely to be the kind of adult who buys and tosses, fears and ignores.
Here’s Doby again: “We’re hoping that using these recycled [reusable] materials will make unique and interesting sounds,” she says, then emphasizes, “we’ve also got a strong mission to work with local artists. This inspires kids to be excited about what’s going on around them and for future career paths through new and fun exciting ideas. We are excited to partner with Spare Parts as part of this mission.”
“We think this is pretty amazing because the Children’s Museum is valuing the commitment to provide sustainable and eco-friendly creative experiences to its visitors. And they sought our expertise.”
This is a unique and probably unprecedented type of partnership in the San Antonio arts community. It can/should be replicated.