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San Francisco Artists Make Art From Trash

It is said that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure, and the idea helped inspire an program in San Francisco, where recycled materials are used to create works of art.

They work at a recycling center of a company called Recology, as part of an art program that the employee-owned firm started 25 years ago.

As workers sift the garbage in a massive warehouse, artist Ma Li is at work next door, shaping plastic bottles into hanging star bursts. She receives a stipend to spend four months on her project using articles culled from San Francisco’s trash.

Ingenious creation

The work features cardboard tubes, fabric and other material, activated by flowing air and dancers.

“In the end, it’s going to be a moving pneumatic sculpture that can be enacted by a group of participants. So it is going to be a group performance,” said Li.

She said she learned recycling from her parents while growing up in China in the 1980s, when the country was poorer and more thrifty than it is today.

San Francisco artist Michael Arcega works with recycled wood and old leather belts, all salvaged from the garbage.

“My project is based on pseudo-anthropological research on the Nacerima people,” he said.

'Wasteful culture'

Arcega explained that Nacirema is American spelled backwards, and his artwork, which look like a display in a museum of folk culture, documents what he calls the wasteful culture of the American people. But he said it is a challenge sifting through the trash for raw material.

“Finding what is useful in the work and what is actually garbage,” he said.

A gallery in Los Angeles is displaying some of the art from the San Francisco project: collages made from old packaging, sculptures from scrap metal and carpenters’ saws whose blades have been cut to look like trees.

Program manager Deborah Munk explained how the art objects were made.

“Artists pull out every imaginable material you can think of, but mostly it is wood or metal or textiles that they use. Paint. We have had a lot of painters,” she said.

Los Angeles gallery owner Liz Gordon said artists have a history of recycling.

“People who did not have the resources to go out and be able to buy supplies found supplies and have been using found objects and assemblage for many, many years,” she said.

Recycling lifestyle

Li said these art works have a message.

“So everyone can come together to make a little change in their daily life and behavior to try to save the environment and resources,” she said.

The man who heads the recycling company, Mike Sangiacomo, hopes to see as much waste as possible reused.

“Along the way, if some of it is made into some fun pieces of art and draws people’s attention to the issue, we think it is a great way to do something that is good for our business, good for our community, good for society,” he said.

And the project shows how a little imagination can transform one person’s trash into another’s artwork.