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This post was written by creative waste reduction specialist Abigail West, who from July to early September 2020 served as our first Get Artistic Artist-in-Residence. Check out Abigail’s step-by-step guide for a creative upcycling project here.

Limits enable creativity. My choice to work only with reclaimed materials opens a world of possibilities and ideas. When I work with “trash,” as I have over the last several months as Creature Comforts’ Get Artistic Artist-in-Residence, I always start with the materials and let them guide the direction my work will ultimately take.

I begin with a lot of playful experimentation and prototyping. At Creature Comforts, using materials like woven polypropylene grain bags and foil-lined plastic hop bags (think potato chip bag, but thicker), I explored a wide range of possible techniques. What happens when I fold, cut, fuse these things with an iron? What do they look like overlapped, sewn, glued together? What flat or multi-dimensional forms can I make?

Abigail experimented with cutting shapes from hard-to-recycle Mylar hop bags, which are used to ship hops all over the world.

As I go along, I’m intuitively drawn to certain shapes and combinations of material. I try my best to listen to that feeling. Then, it’s important to make MANY multiples of a shape. Once I have a lot, I’ll be able to know what effect it has and whether it works. I often work with several different prototypes and ideas at once, but inevitably one sings to me louder than the rest. So, I store the others away in my archive for a future project.

That’s how I came to make the flower installation at Creature Comforts. The shape of rhododendron flowers keeps getting stuck in my head. I’ve made similar flower motifs out of various materials in the past, but it never quite worked out. Each summer, when I’m trail running in the North Georgia mountains, I’m called back to the rhododendron flowers in lush clusters on the trees and scattered across the ground. (My eyes spend a lot of time on the ground when running such technical terrain.) The same thing happened this summer as I was just starting to experiment with the materials from Creature. Surprisingly, the grain bag turned out to be the perfect material from which to make the flowers. When the whole bag is ironed flat (using a heat barrier such as a sheet of paper to keep the plastic from fully melting), it becomes paper-like in texture and appearance. So, I started cutting out flowers and didn’t look back.

This installation came about because I believe in the power of scaling up art made from waste materials. These industrial packaging materials are, at least locally, “hard-to-recycle materials”, meaning the only option is to throw them in the landfill where they will accumulate indefinitely. Every piece of plastic ever made still exists somewhere on Earth today, be that in a landfill or degraded into some smaller size piece or particle in the environment. By scaling up the work I make, it morphs into something bigger than one grain bag— and hopefully more eye-catching, too.

There’s also something powerful about the amount of time it takes to create an installation such as this one. Each flower must be meticulously cut out and glued together by my hands, which re-humanizes, in a way, something that was mass-produced by a machine and intended to be used once, for one specific purpose. We don’t think much about the average, ubiquitous consumer trash items I often choose to work with, like chip bags and bubble wrap. Imagine how little we think about materials that are intended for industrial use. When you look at a beer can in your hand, you might think to recycle it, but you probably don’t think of all the resources that went into getting that can to you— including, but not limited, vast amounts of water, CO2, and plastic. Everything we consume has hidden resource costs.

Creature Comforts is certainly doing what it can to lower its environmental impact and improve its sustainability practices, but hard-to-recycle material waste is tricky. Industrial hop and grain bags contain necessary ingredients, but they come with unintended consequences. Maybe, somehow, somewhere, these things can be recycled. The reality is that recycling is a business just like any other, and it depends on the market demand for recycled material. Unfortunately, the recyclability of materials is often an after-thought. When we take that lens, we realize that the solution to a lot of non-recyclable waste challenges lies in better manufacturing choices. If companies choose to create and utilize products that can be reused—or if not, recycled—we can cut down significantly on landfill space, resource consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions.

The beginning phase of Abigail’s installation, which evolved over time, made from woven polypropylene grain bags. The installation is on view through September 2020.

Now, when you start thinking about all that, it can get a bit gloomy. Rather than let myself wallow for too long in despair about the future of the planet, my solution is to make beautiful things out of materials designed to be thrown away. I have two goals in doing so: first, to bring more beauty and light into the world using things we already have. The point is not that we can start making stuff from our trash and thereby do away with it completely, but rather that we can lift one another up through art and good ideas.

My second goal is to show that these materials are not just something ugly that cause problems, but that they inherently have value and potential. The industrial products I have worked with are highly durable and have all kinds of other potential uses I haven’t yet explored. If you are interested in doing some creative material experimentation of your own, please reach out to me (on Instagram or my website) because I would LOVE to see what you can come up with. There is power in collective creativity! I challenge you to rethink systems in your own life, be it personal or at work, so you can be a part of the changes needed every day in the face of our planet’s climate crisis.

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