Listening to the stories our trash tells

Words: Amelia Bauerly
ART: Caroline Borucki, Ethan Estess & GRACE AMBER

Not so long ago, every town had a dump. Everyone knew where it was, and knew what it looked like, because it was a place they regularly visited. But, for the modern city dweller, garbage is just something we put in front of our houses weekly. From there it disappears, and we never see it again. The wonderful efficiency of our modern trash systems has blinded us to the sheer mass of waste that we produce.

But of course we do produce waste: vast amounts of it. According to a recent OPB article, between 50-60 giant, 18-wheeled trucks take waste from Portland’s two transfer stations to the Columbia Ridge Landfill. Per day.

“Heartbreaking. Heartbreaking is the word I use over and over again,” says Amy Wilson, as she describes what it’s like visiting one of Portland’s two waste-transfer stations. “You only have to go a couple of times to be a little overwhelmed. It’s the end result of our out-of-control consumer society. But we don’t see that part. We have an idea, but not really. And then when you see it...it’s heartbreaking. And it’s only getting worse. Things are only getting more and more temporary. But I am, by nature, a problem solver. My answer is always, ‘what can I do?’”

Years ago, Amy Wilson worked in the solid waste department at Metro, the public governance body in Portland. Around this time the team at Metro took a trip to Recology in San Francisco, where they discovered something intriguing: Recology, officially what we might call a ‘dump’, was also the home of a very successful in-house, artist-in-residence program.

The idea behind the Recology artist-in-residence program is, roughly, thus: artists have an ability to imagine new possibilities for materials they see, and they also have a continual need for new materials. So, perhaps by giving artists studio space and access to the materials that are dropped off at ‘the dump’ by customers, one could create a community conversation about what we’re throwing away, while also re-imagining the possibilities for what we think of as ‘trash’?

It’s an intriguing idea, and one that worked so well in San Francisco that it wasn’t long before people like Amy started wondering, ‘why can’t we do that here, in Portland?’

That initial thought blossomed into GLEAN, an artist-in-residence program in Portland that has been running now for eight years. GLEAN selects five artists every year to work on eight pieces  using reclaimed materials that are displayed in the program’s annual exhibition in early August. Amy is the Program Coordinator. Metro, Recology Portland, and local arts non-profit Crackedpots are its sponsors.

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Caroline Borucki: History, Purpose, and Engagement

What sorts of artists participate in GLEAN?

Portland-based artist Caroline Borucki was a 2017 GLEAN artist-in-residence. Participating in GLEAN wasn’t her first encounter with reclaimed materials; she has been using them for as long as she can remember. “I was always collecting reclaimed materials. My background is in apparel design, so I was always collecting textiles as alternative fabric instead of buying new.”

As a sculptor, Caroline creates forms that investigate the life-cycles of objects, exploring the ways things disintegrate and decay. Her aim is to “fuse a relationship between humans and the environment” by creating a “deliberation of responsibility, deterioration and empathy.” Using reclaimed materials is, and always has been, integral to this process. As Caroline describes it, reclaimed materials “have this history. They had a purpose. There’s different reasons that they were around, why they lived with someone and why they loved them.”

Reclaimed materials communicate more than just a sense of history when used as materials for art. “After doing GLEAN and going in a few times...you see how much we get rid of. There’s so many new or nearly new objects discarded in such large quantities. It was really overwhelming to see that.”

Communicating these concerns about the abundance of waste is part of what Caroline hopes people think about when they see her art. “I hope to get people to engage. To be more curious. To just question a little bit more about what is essential in their lives and evaluate some of the choices they make in order to have longer-term connections with the objects around them. Right now there’s this culture of instant gratification. So I’ve been wondering, how does that affect our decisions? We want things really quick but maybe it’s better to think things through and make a decision that fits someone’s values a bit better?”

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Ethan Estess: Art and Ocean Stewardship

Ethan Estess is another artist working in the ‘reclaimed’ art space. Based in Santa Cruz, Ethan was a participant in San Francisco Recology’s artist-in-residence program in 2011-2012.

“I started working with reclaimed rope when I found a ton of it in the landfill while at Recology. I made one of my most successful sculptures from that rope.”

Through his large-scale public sculptures, prints and delicately beautiful rope panels, all made out of items he’s scavenged from the beaches and sea near his home, he aims to promote “ocean stewardship.”

To do that effectively, “artwork has to effectively engage a viewer’s emotions, then get them to think critically about their relationship with the ocean and plastic pollution. That mental back-and-forth is exactly what I work to achieve because it creates tangible, memorable experiences in the context of an ocean issue, which is much more effective at a neural level than just spitting out some statistics on how much plastic is in the ocean.”

Ultimately, helping to create connections through his art to larger issues of sustainability is important because, “the next phase of human evolution really boils down to our ability to recognize our influence in the global ecosystem and to respond to that knowledge through sensible resource management and governance.”

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Grace Amber: Trash as Hidden Truths

Importantly, though, not all art made from reclaimed materials is aimed purely at communicating the importance of issues of sustainability. Other artists argue the use of waste in art highlights different themes.

Grace Amber is a Portland-based artist working in the reclaimed materials space. Though Grace wasn’t a participant in either of Recology’s artist-in-residence programs, they have worked with reclaimed materials their whole life.

“There’s a picture of me being three years old picking up sequins on the floor. I just always have been attracted to the process of gathering. I’m attracted to it because of the freedom to experiment without worrying that I’m going to waste something. Art materials that people have paid for had always intimidated me. My hands have always wanted to pick things up off the ground.”

For Grace, ‘trash’ is important because, by looking at it closely, we can access histories that have otherwise been suppressed in some way. As they put it, “the existence of trash or refuse... this is already about the way that we are pushing some things away. Just the idea of trash: it’s the things we’re not supposed to see or experience or touch or have in our lives anymore.”

“I just think that objects and the way they exist in the world are like mirrors for the way that we are interacting with each other. And having objects that we’re trying to push away or dig holes and hide is mimicking the way that works in relation to histories that we are wanting to hide...  So I think that trash is a metaphor but it’s also beyond a metaphor since it is revealing of that tendency to try to hide things.”

Grace has a similarly poignant insight when asked whether using reused materials is just a trend or part of a growing movement. “Saying trash art is a trend – it just makes me want to flip it around and be like what is this trend we have of buying art supplies? When is that trend going to end? I don’t really see trash art as being a trend as much as I see manufacturing as being a trend.”

Many of us would agree with Grace, and would prefer to envision the manufacturing of cheap, disposable goods as a trend that’s on it’s way out, and reused materials as the real, growing movement. Artists like Caroline, Ethan and Grace are helping us to move towards this more desirable future, by making it present and accessible, today.

For more information about GLEAN, visit http://www.gleanpdx.org/
Caroline Borucki: https://carolineborucki.work/
Ethan Estess: http://www.ethanestess.com/