Waste not — the miraculous 2nd (and 3rd) lives of unwanted objects

Rescuing materials from an ignominious end in a landfill is part of the transformative mission of Chicago’s reuse facilities and many of its artists.

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Artist and facilitator Susan Gomez leads a group of participants through the collaging process at the WasteShed. | The WasteShed

The WasteShed

No one makes something out of nothing, and creativity is often nothing more than recognizing the potential in one thing to become something else.

There’s a long tradition of artists not just using found objects in their work (think Marcel Duchamp or Robert Rauschenberg), but specifically salvaging materials and things that had been destined for the landfill and helping them find new life.

Spaces like the Chicago Artists Coalition and the Smart Museum, as well as Chicago artists like Jessica Stockholder, Kass Copeland and Gabriel Chalfin-Piney, are rediscovering the aesthetic value of items deemed useless by others, even as Chicago’s reuse facilities, including the WasteShed and Creative Chicago Reuse Exchange, are working to evangelize a conservationist sensibility to professional and amateur artists, educators and Chicago Public Schools by providing recycled supplies and material.

The city of Chicago generated about 4.13 million tons of waste in 2020, and the state of Illinois produces 19 million tons of waste annually, according to the Illinois Environmental Council, ranking fourth among the states in waste production in 2022. Transforming paper, cardboard, glass, plastic and rubber holds many advantages beyond the environmental benefits. Artists and creatives are able to source cost-friendly supplies and have an opportunity to experiment with the objects at hand. By using a piece of ceramic or a beaded necklace, the object can inspire the artist and lead their art, rather than vice versa.

From its headquarters in Humboldt Park, the WasteShed has diverted 123 tons of waste from landfills and into the hands of artists and creators since 2014.

“That is, we physically processed and redistributed the weight of two adult sperm whales,” says Ulisa Blakely, the WasteShed’s administrative coordinator. “These materials represent an estimated $2.2 million [in] value to Chicago’s makers and teachers.”

These cost savings can have a tremendous impact in educational contexts. Chicago Public Schools faces economic disparities, especially art facilitators and teachers who have to purchase school supplies with their own money.

The WasteShed’s mission is to change the everyday habits of Chicagoans and to provide a “window into and a path out of the waste stream, and by centering community and creation,” in addition to honoring the labor and energy that goes into material goods. At its material depots — one in Evanston and one in Humboldt Park — one can find art and office supplies, as well as workshops, classes and job training for sustainability.

“Creative reuse has the potential to benefit every artistic discipline, not just artists looking for cheap tubes of paint or paintbrushes,” Blakely says. “It teaches people to resist their own ‘throw it away’ tendencies and to recognize creative reuse of common objects (paper, yarn, fabric, beads and buttons, art equipment, etc.) while identifying ways to reduce the waste stream.”

Discouraging throwaway culture is a personal rumination for Chicago-based artists like Chalfin-Piney andCopeland, something that they carry within them from artwork to artwork. But finding the right object often requires extending their search to junkyards, antique stores and even city streets.

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Chicago artist Gabriel Chalfin-Piney with some of their artwork.

Ash Dye photo

Chalfin-Piney grew up among art-makers in the Hudson Valley at the Quaker Boarding School where their mother ran the art department. Since moving to Chicago in 2018, they’ve been creating work that uses performance and storytelling to invite viewers’ participation. Much of Chalfin-Piney’s work uses recycled objects — dried fruit, crab shells from Maine, or ax handles.

“Many of the items I have used are a response to the seam-bursting identity of the American landfill. By imbuing new or ongoing life into these objects as elements to construct an artwork, I am halting the cycle of them becoming trash,” they explain.

This type of art practice serves as a meditation, a way to appreciate the ordinary and see beauty in everything.

“The stranger the object, the more I am drawn to it.”

And they spend a lot of time looking for items that scream “strange.” While briefly moving to Maine for work, Chalfin-Piney explored antique stores for hours, fixated on revisiting the same shops, where they would search for “past relics outdated in their use: sock stretchers, butter molds, painted mushrooms.”

Chalfin-Piney also reuses many materials from other artworks. A common thematic symbol in their work is the ax handle.

“Originally, the ax handle served as the base of tall beeswax candles that I created. The candles then became staffs, used in a performance mimicking weapons. Recently I used the handles yet again to create brooms filled with fresh flowers, which were wielded by dancers moving around the Chicago Athletic Hotel,” they said. “I imagine there are still many more life experiences to come for these handles.”

For the artist, each new work reinvigorates the object, allowing it to live on, shift and evolve as it traverses through time.

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An antique clock case and wallpaper, a painted plaster bust of Voltaire and glass lens are among the constitutive parts of Kass Copeland’s “Burn Them All!”

Kass Copeland

Copeland has a similar urge to collect what other people discard.

“I find old furniture next to dumpsters and in thrift stores around Chicago,” she says. “When considering how to reuse items, I try not to think of the original purpose of the object and reduce it to a shape with color and texture. I don’t think of a candlestick as something to hold a candle. This opens up possibilities and allows my mind to use the object more creatively.”

Copeland sees the process like a poem or a story.

“It can be challenging to make these previously unrelated elements work together, but when they finally start to make sense, it’s worth all the effort of emptying my many cabinets and drawers to find the perfect combination,” she says.

From the systemwide scale of creating opportunities for teachers and students across the city to the intimate scale of a simple object hanging on a wall, reuse art gives a physical shape to environmental injustice and demands viewers rethink abundance, consumerism and everyday waste.

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