REASONS I WORK WITH RECYCLED MATERIALS
1. THE LANDFILLS
So, the elephant in the room…the landfills…we know it. We all know it. This world holds 8 billion people with those in developed countries throwing out at least one trash bag a week (this is my estimate, based solely on observations of the trash bins outside my building). This isn’t even counting trash from business and industry. It is a lot of trash and I wonder when it will start to squeeze us out of our beautiful natural places. So yes, anything that slows that is a good reason to use recycled materials.
However, if I’m honest, I began Grace & Diggs for different reasons than a concern for the planet. At the time, I was broke but also needed a lifestyle where I had freedom to visit my aging parents. I jumped into the world of self-employment and began piecing together an art business using materials I could scrounge. Happily, this use of recycled materials led to discoveries about artistic process that motivated me to keep using them, even when I began to have some success and financial situation improved.
Although I’m calling this series my “Top Reasons to Work With Recycled Materials,” slowing the march of materials to landfills is more of a by-product of some other more personal reasons I have for working this way. I mention this because I am not writing this list as a rebuff of anyone who shops at craft and fabric stores.
We are all finding ways to do better; to consume less, thrift more, walk more, use re-fill-able water bottles, breathe deeper. Doing better looks different for everyone. Using recycled materials in my work is low-hanging fruit for me, and the process has led, as mentioned, to some meaningful discoveries, which is the real point of this piece.
Sharing all this is also a celebration of sorts. If you are my age, you can relate to the lessons of Mr. Miyagi, to, “wax on, wax off:” begin a process when faith and courage are low and the humble process is due to necessity rather than nobility. Keep it up long enough and you begin to see what it has been teaching you - the movements, the mindset, the habits. It is a process of becoming.
2. WORKING IN RECYCLED MATERIALS HELPS ME OFF THE HAMSTER WHEEL OF MASS-CONSUMERISM
At the heart of big-bucks marketing is the message that we are not enough. We are not attractive enough, thin enough, rich enough, we are not living our best lives, seizing our moments enough, our work does not look like the Pinterest boards. The antidote for that, they tell us, is their product (a brilliant account of how this ubiquitous marketing monster creates shame in ourselves and our culture is the book, “Daring Greatly” by Brene Brown. I’ve found her work life changing and I highly recommend getting to know it).
When I first started Grace & Diggs I spent a fortune on materials from big box craft stores. I was scared to death to open my doors and let people see my work, I wondered why anyone would want what I was making and what right did I have to set up shop anyway? To soothe this anxiety I’d buy yards and yards of tulle and armloads of silk flowers and buckets of glitter. I hoped that if I bought enough stuff then I might be ok (whatever that meant). I’d haul it all back to my shop and have nowhere to put it and also be afraid to use it - I mean, it cost a small fortune and what if I made a mistake? I’d plan out my projects with such heartbreaking precision and procrastination that making anything was a painful exercise in fear and self-loathing.
I think back on that difficult time and think of how working in recycled materials is a constant message delivered to myself: you have just what you need. You do not need to spend a fortune on supplies at the craft store. Take a big breath and dig through your trash. Go wander through the thrift store or the garage sale down the street. Keep breathing and examine what you’ve found. What happens if you string this piece together with a few other pieces? What does that look like? What might this be? What happens if you declare it good enough and really own it? That process soothes anxiety which, in turn, soothes that need to numb my fear with more shopping.
Again, thanks to Brene Brown for this concept: the opposite of scarcity isn’t abundance. The opposite of scarcity is, “enough.” Using recycled materials is message I deliver to myself on a daily basis: I have just what I need, if I need something different I know that it is available to me. I have enough, and more importantly, I am enough.
3. USING RECYCLED MATERIALS HELPS ME WORK QUICKLY & LOOSELY.
I once took a sketching course from an artist named Mike Lin whose whole approach is to, “Be Loose.” He calls his work the “BeLoose Workshops.” He taught great techniques, sure, but the best part of his message is to keep the pen moving and don’t worry about mistakes because, really, what is a mistake? In sketching, “mistakes” become bushes, or crowds or show movement. “Mistakes” become the energy of the sketch.
When Grace & Diggs first became a physical space I had spent so much on craft supplies I was scared to use them for fear that I would make a mistake and waste money (see previous post for more on this). I also thought that everything I made had to look from the Pinterest boards.
By using recycled materials I’m not worried about the cost or about being wasteful. Something doesn’t work out? I can throw it away and start over. The material was heading for the trash anyway. With trash I am not afraid to make mistakes because I’ve spent nothing on the materials.This keeps me free in my creative process. I find that my process has loosened up.
The movie, “The Golden Compass” has a great scene in which the protagonist holds a magical compass and is instructed that the device will provide answers to any question but to do so it must be held lightly. Grip it too tightly and it won’t work. I think of this often. I sense when I am being too precious, too intense, gripping my work too tightly. Knowing that my materials came out of the trash helps me loosen up and tap into the joy in the process.
I’ve found that Mike Lin was right - not just in matters pertaining to sketching, but to all sorts of creative endeavors. I look at my work and the pieces in which I’ve moved quickly, freely, and loosely are always my favorites.
4. USING RECYCLED MATERIALS MEANS THAT MY WORK HAS A CHARACTER ALL ITS OWN - THERE IS ROOM FOR MY VOICE.
Occasionally someone will send me pictures of other artists’ work. If this happens on a day when I am dealing with nasty insecurities, I look at the work and think, “Oh no! What if this image lodges itself into my self-conscious and I inadvertently wind up copying it?” And also this: “Well I see now that everything cool has already been done so what is the point of carrying on?” And also this (the worst): “I wish I had made that, I’m obviously no good. Talent really is a pie and that person got it all and I got nothing. Everyone who has liked my work must be lying to me and then talking about it behind my back with everyone else.” I am not proud of these responses and could keep a therapist busy for years with this issue alone.
Using recycled materials soothes these monsters because it involves so many decisions. Every choice an artist makes is an opening for the soul to have a say. Ask 10 people to draw a square on a page and you will get 10 very different pictures because of the choices that have been made: how big will the square be? Where will it sit on this page? How much pressure will be put on the pencil? Will the lines be ruler-straight or wobbly? Color in the square or not?
Increase the decisions to be made and you deepen the connection to the soul, which holds more unique and fresh material than a lifetime of work could ever excavate. Using recycled items involves so many thousands of questions and making all the decisions I do to work with it means that my work becomes solidly mine. The process of finding materials to work with, of developing techniques and methods, of finding new tools to work with them, results in something unique. I find confidence in this. The trash is full of so many interesting shapes and possibilities that I can rest assured that my work and my voice have plenty of room to speak.
And then, happily, when that confidence shows up, I am able to look at other’s work and enjoy it in a healthy state. Their work is inspiring, rather than threatening and I breathe deep and let myself be intrigued and inspired by their journeys and their processes.
5. I USE RECYCLED MATERIALS BECAUSE OF THE HUMAN CONNECTIONS IT CREATES, WHICH IN TURN GETS ME OUT OF MY HEAD.
If you’re going to work in the world of public art, you need thick skin. It can seem that the number of times you hear, “No” far outweighs those golden times you get a, “Yes.” There are competitors and critics and those who don’t understand your efforts. If you fail, you do it publicly. It can get heavy. Using recycled materials resets my perspective on this because collecting those materials gives me a glimpse into others’ lives. This, in turn, reminds me that it is not all about me.
If I need a large quantity of a certain item, (such as k-cups or water bottles or wire hangers) I will post a request on social media and tell people that I would be happy to come pick up the materials if they’ll save them for me.
The whimsical conversations and connections that result from this process reset my perspective on the art I make and what “success” means. The interest people take in my work, the moments shared in otherwise busy days are so human and so inspiring. It takes the focus off the nasty little voices in my head.
My travels have led to conversations and experiences like these: going to pick up water bottles from the busy mom of 2 toddlers who had transformed her whole front yard into a vegetable garden. She told me about her battles with the neighbors who disapproved of this, whose own yards consisted of manicured lawns and flowers from The Approved List, and how much she enjoyed flicking a few rogue pumpkin seeds into their geraniums. She sent me away with the water bottles I’d come for along with a whole lot of laughter and a bag of zucchini.
There was the tiny house that I fought an hour’s traffic to get to, thinking I was getting a monster bag of k-cups only to find the kindest elderly lady waiting with 6 k-cups neatly wrapped in newspaper and string. She reminded me of an aunt that I miss very much. The experience became a reminder to do everything with purpose, purchase the things I need with clarity, care for them and dispose of them with purpose. Quit treating necessary consumption flippantly.
Then there was the mega-store lumber department where I asked this squirrelly kid of an employee (a new hire, probably not really interested in his job, I thought) to direct me to the trash bin so I could dig out the green lumber strapping. The kid perked right up, not only showed me the way but tipped the trash bin over, dug out all the lumber strapping himself, wrapped it up and taped it neatly for me for easy carrying.
And this: the manager of the brand new hotel in town who enthusiastically let me put a cardboard box in her beautiful new lobby with a sign on it asking people to deposit, “Water Bottles Only!” This same manager reached into said box every day for two weeks and removed candy wrappers, half-empty bottles of energy drinks, sour milk and other trash and helped me collect a great big bin of exactly what I needed.
People move me! These glimpses into their daily worlds are a reminder that they are not sitting on the sidelines waiting to criticize my art - they are far too busy with their own lives for that. I soak up the few minutes they give me and let those be the “Yes -es” and soak up their affirmations. Their interest in my work fuels inspiration