“That’s quite a rant,” my friend and fellow artist told me, after I said what I had to say about kids being made to work with what I characterized as garbage.

While I’d never set out to teach art classes with a focus on recycled materials, recently I’ve been invited to do just that. Some opportunities I’ve turned down, others I’ve accepted. Where the line is for me was something I was beginning to figure out, as I ranted to my friends.

When is it okay to use recycled materials? In art in general and in kids’ art classes specifically?

Here’s my statement on the use of recycled materials in children’s art classes. The manifesto bit comes at the end.

Art making has an element of collecting for many artists. Robert Rauschenburg is said to have started each day walking around the alleys of New York, picking up items to use in his assemblages and collages.

If artists are not collecting collage elements, then they’re collecting inspiration, like Luann Udell’s extensive collection of antlers and beaver-chewed sticks. Inspiration. We like to be surrounded in our studios by what feels right and positive to us.

There’s also an element of scrounging, or serendipity, for me. I found a really cool curved cabinet door for free that I’m using as a painting surface. To some degree the random quality of what materials come my way is a useful creative constraint.

I’ve made art on cigar boxes, old game boards, wood floor samples, laundry detergent buckets and other neat things that I find or buy. My art includes broken automotive glass, actual toys and hand-sewn doll clothes.

I’ve been pondering this issue of recycled materials lately because I’ve been teaching some recycled art day camps this summer. It’s not the kind of class I would have proposed but I was happy to fill in for another teacher.

I had to ask myself, “How can I do this class in a way that meets my requirements for using recycled materials in art?” What I use in my own art falls more into the found object category than recycled materials. (If you don’t know, many kids’ art classes involve the use of egg cartons and the like. Literally, the contents of the recycle bin.)

My own kids have taken an art day camp (different place from where I’m teaching, couple of years ago) where they came home with basically garbage glued to garbage (not their fault, the teacher’s). We no longer have those pieces, but we do have their acrylic paintings and ceramic cups and plates from that same camp.

Being able to transform recycled materials into something else is usually an advanced adult artist skill.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to who does an amazing job of transforming recycled materials. Haitian artists make clever objects, such as little toy airplanes, out of soda cans.

You know that kind f object where you just marvel at their ingenuity and skill? That kind of thing, that makes you regret throwing away all those cans that you didn’t know were art supplies.

“Not everything is art, but everything is art supplies.” – Sculptor Lew Alquist

An American artist who works with printed tin is Hariette Estel Berman.  You can see some of that work here: http://www.harriete-estel-berman.info/sculpt/Sculpt.html

A Chicago artist who’s known for using recycled materials (among other works) is Mary Ellen Crouteau, whose columns of bottle caps and lids are not so much transformed, just a hole drilled and then strung, but her arrangement of them transforms our experience of them. We delight in trying to identify which lids we recognize in this new, disconnected state.  See Mary Ellen’s work here: http://www.maryellencroteau.net/mec_website/galleries/Pages/bottle_caps.html and the columns here:  http://www.maryellencroteau.net/mec_website/galleries/Pages/Endless_Columns.html

Those are a few examples of the types of projects that meet my criteria for transformation in the use of recycled materials.

But I only had five days, three hours a day with this group of kids, not enough time to turn them into accomplished tin smiths.

Here are some of the projects we did, below, and in another camp we made dolls and quilts.

Day Camp Mosaic, Photos by Elaine Luther, copyrights to the respective artists.

Day Camp Mosaic, Photos by Elaine Luther, copyrights to the respective artists.

And though we used new materials, for the quilts and dolls, many of the fabrics we used were retired manufacturer’s samples or de-stashed fabric found at thrift stores or given to me by friends. I count that as upcycling.

And you certainly could do quilting with actual old clothes, though T-shirts require the use of interfacing, so new materials will be used.

The real challenge came for my third day camp, the second recycled art class. Because one student is taking both classes, I can’t recycle any of the projects, it all has to be new.

As always, I headed to the art and craft section of the library to begin my research.

Bookcover Upcycling by Danny Seo

It’s rare that I find books or projects online that meet my requirements, but this book’s author, Danny Seo, gets it.  

The kind of project I don’t want to be a part of are the ones that take stuff you would otherwise toss or recycle and turn it into a useless gee-gaw. I expect things to either have a real function or succeed as art. And how many coasters, pencil holders and paperweights does one home need?

If you do all the projects you find to use up your recyclables, you’ll soon be drowning in stuff, the exact opposite of the eco-lifestyle you were trying to cultivate.

I like the upcylcing projects in this book and we’ll be doing one or two of them in the coming week.

We’ll also be upcycling, or at least updating T-shirts with silkscreening and tie-dying. This camp will definitely be more upcycling and extending-the-life than using reycleable materials.

And finally,

As a craftsperson, I love the motto of the Kahlo Shop, a woman owned silversmithing shop in Chicago at the height of the custom silverware time period, ending in about the 1920s or so. (Read more aobut the Kahlo Shop in the book, Chicago Metalsmiths.) Their motto was:

Beautiful, Useful and Enduring.

I’m a craftsperson first. It colors all my opinions on material things and craft and art. When I see a piece in a museum, I want to know, “what’s it made out of? Who made it? How was it made?”

That brings us to the manifesto bit.

Elaine Luther’s Manifesto on the Use of Recycled Materials in Art by Children (in Children’s Art Classes)

  • Materials must be transformed. Ideally unrecognizable, or barely recognizable.
  • If not transformed, our experience of the materials must be transformed.
  • Upcycling, re-styling and mending are all valuable skills that keep materials out of the waste stream while also allwoing us to personalize our mass produced items. Those get the stamp of approval.
  • The use of recycled materials cannot be the highest priority and the longevity and function must also be considered (that means no paintings on cardboard, for example).
  • Adults may choose to create ephemeral art that they know will decay or degrade quickly. As art teachers, we are not to make this decision for children.

And that’s it. That’s my manifesto on the use of recycled materials in children’s art classes. What have I missed? Do you agree? Disagree? The comments are open!

Update: 1/21/16  Here’s a wearable piece of art that perfectly demonstrates what I’m talking about.  This is Eleanor Ray, wearing her art, made of milk jugs, that have been completely transformed.

Artist Eleanor Ray wearing sculpture, copyright Eleanor Ray 2015

Artist Eleanor Ray wearing sculpture, copyright Eleanor Ray 2015

Update: 8/4/14  Here’s a lovely post about the Reggio approach to education, on why children deserve quality materials.  http://www.aneverydaystory.com/beginners-guide-to-reggio-emilia/reggio-materials

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