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Trash Turned Treasure: Artistic Inspiration From an Unlikely Source

By:  Zac Unger Feb 11, 2013
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Jeff Hantman's "LVG," sewing machine table made with a push lawn mower handle, skuut wheels, conduit, wood, glass jars, hockey stick, and laser engraved wood

Jeff Hantman's "LVG" sewing machine table is made with a push lawn mower handle, skuut wheels, conduit, wood, glass jars, hockey stick, and laser engraved wood

Making art is hard: the hours are long and lonely, the materials are expensive, and the rewards can be nonexistent. Which is why, throughout history, great artists have always had great patrons. 

And now, in a distant, windy corner of San Francisco, one unlikely benefactor has made almost 100 artists’ dreams come true over the last 20 years.

So just who is this generous philanthropist? A business tycoon? Nope. A politician or some distant member of an obscure royal lineage? It’s not that either.

It’s the dump. That’s right: garbage men are the best thing to have happened to the San Francisco art scene since the invention of tie-dye. Nobody at Recology — the private waste management firm at the center of this scheme — refers to their facility as a “dump,” but when you catch the smell and see the swarming seagulls, it’s hard to think of it as anything else.

The Humblest of Studios

Where some people see trash, others see treasure. Since 1990, Recology has sponsored an artist-in-residence program for innovative creators who don’t mind getting their hands dirty. Every year, more than 100 people apply for six fought-over spots. The lucky artists are provided with a $1,000 monthly stipend, a fully-stocked art studio, and a shopping cart they can use to go hunting for the very best bits other people have thrown away. 

Over the course of the residency, the artists make one beautiful thing after another using only materials they’ve found in the facility’s 46 acres of glorious garbage.

“Artists starting out here can be overwhelmed,” says Deborah Munk, the program’s director. “The effort of collecting materials can be physically exhausting. But even more than that, it can be emotionally overwhelming when you see the amount of usable items that people just throw away.”

From Meager Beginnings to High Brow

On a recent weekend, well over 100 people gathered at the austere gallery where the resident artists display their work. The crowd was an unusual assembly of hip creative types in designer sunglasses and curious families with children in tow. People sipped wine, nibbled on brie, and could continually be heard asking one another, “did they really make that out of garbage?”

People viewing Rag Sorters and Star Gazers created by the Dump's Julia Goodman

People viewing Rag Sorters and Star Gazers created by the Dump's Julia Goodman

The works that emerge from the program are anything but junk. Onlookers marveled at a spaceship made from surgical instruments, a shuffleboard puck, and delicate glass balls that somehow survived the journey from curbside to curation. Many of the kids especially appreciated one piece that looked like a massive windmill standing on smooth, curved I-beams made entirely of castoff lumber. Never have a patio umbrella, a TV tray, and a few lengths of pipe been put to such good use.

Julia Goodman, who just finished her residency, stood alongside her works and explained the process to eager questioners. She has made paper and pulp for years, and used this Recology residence to expand her palette of colors and materials. The results are a surprisingly delicate collection of pieces that are textured and swirled and energetic like no paper you’ve ever seen. The rhinestones from a castoff costume tiara become stars in a constellation, and lace, doilies, and embroidery thread have a completely new life breathed into them.

Julia Goodman's Observatory 1 is made of crystal, plexiglass, a pair of wooden pedestals, tabletops, penny bank, Christmas lights, a lazy susan, a microwave motor, and etched mica.

Julia Goodman's Observatory 1 is made with crystal, plexiglass, a pair of wooden pedestals, tabletops, penny bank, Christmas lights, a lazy susan, a microwave motor, and etched mica.

Letting the Materials Lead You

“You have to respond to whatever inspiration and supplies you find out there,” Goodman says. "Sometimes you find something and it feels like a miracle that it’s out there. You have to bring it back and study it and figure out a way to use it. There are things out there that you’d never planned for but you just have to use. It’s like you don’t have a choice.”

Although she didn’t find a use for every great thing she found, Goodman (a native of Atlanta) couldn’t resist collecting old Coke bottles, small and thick and heavy, stamped with the words SAN FRANCISCO in honor of the local bottling plant.

Lest people think this is simply some kind of do-gooder vanity project, the prices of the finished works are evidence to the contrary. Some of the pieces fetch many thousands of dollars, with the proceeds split 60/40 between the artist and Recology. The artist-in-residence program has exhibited art in banks and fancy hotels, and recently won approval to exhibit some choice pieces at the San Francisco Airport in a coveted gallery space next to the moving walkway.

Jeff Hantman Tries, Try, plywood, veneer, masonite, latex house paint, colored pencil.

Jeff Hantman's Tries is made of plywood, veneer, masonite, latex house paint, colored pencil.

Like any serious patron, Recology doesn’t want to let all of the art they’ve sponsored get away. Artists are required to leave examples of the work in a permanent sculpture garden, three acres of recycled wonders on a hill overlooking the bay. Serving as a buffer zone between the dump and the adjoining neighborhood, the garden is planted with native grasses and dotted with odd creations like a fence made of bicycle wheels and a massive teardrop fashioned from nothing but clear glass bottles.

Beauty and Education Go Hand-in-Hand

Jeff Hantman Species Group 1, patio umbrella, tv tray, plywood, veneer, mahogany, steel pipe

Jeff Hantman's Species Group 1 made up of a patio umbrella, tv tray, plywood, veneer, mahogany, and steel pipe

In the end, the mission of the program isn’t purely aesthetic, but involves a larger desire to create sustainable art. The studio hosts 150 tour groups a year, and each artist ends up sharing lessons of creative reuse with around 1,000 people over the course of the residency.

“Our mission is to encourage resource conservation and recycling on a broad scale,” says Munk, the program’s director. “One artist we worked with used to buy all his materials from the 99-cent store, but he found that everything he bought he could actually find right here. He promised he’d never buy anything again.”

It’s often said that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Never has that maxim been more true than at San Francisco’s Recology center, where the past is the future, garbage is art, and art is an inspiration for a greener world.