11 Artists Doing Amazing Things With Recycled Materials

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Miguel Rivera

We all know that you’re supposed to reduce, reuse and recycle, but for artists, reuse and recycle often have totally different meanings than they do for the rest of us. Here are 11 artists specializing in making trash into artistic treasures.

1. Lin Evola-Smidt

No one wants their children to grow up in a world plagued by violence, but not many parents have worked as hard to fight the problem as artist Lin Evola-Smidt. When gun violence ravaged Los Angeles in the early nineties, Lin decided to help stop the problem by convincing residents to give up their guns, which would then be melted down to create statues of angels—an appropriately uplifting icon for those living in the increasingly dangerous City of Angels. “I wanted more at that moment than to just create a piece of art," she says. "I wanted people to make a shift within themselves."

The project was a success and within a few years, the area was filled with small metal angels—each reflecting more guns being taken off the city streets. The first angels were up to 3 feet tall and took a few months of work, but eventually, Evola-Smidt decided to increase the size of the sculptures so they could be centerpieces of local parks. In 1997, she completed a 13 foot tall angel called “The Renaissance Peace Angel.” After the terrorist attacks of September 11, the sculpture was moved to Ground Zero and it has since become her most famous artwork.

Seven years after the attacks, Lin announced that she was starting a new project, a global version of her past work called the Art of Peace Charitable Trust, which seeks to combat "the proliferation of small firearms, light artillery and other weapons of war." Cities such as Jerusalem, Bosnia and Johannesburg, South Africa immediately expressed interest in the concept. The first angel built under the trust will be a 30 foot tall masterpiece installed in New York City.

2. Michelle Reader

Since 1997, Michelle Reader has been working to make recycled materials into sculptures, often incorporating mechanical elements such as the working parts of toys and clocks. Her materials come from city dumps, roadsides, and thrift shops, and include both household and industrial waste. “I love the unpredictability of found materials and enjoy the inventiveness necessary to transform them into a sculpture,” she says. “I try wherever possible to use materials that are reclaimed, things with a history that have been discarded and might otherwise end up in landfill.”

Perhaps her most famous work is this family portrait, known as “Seven Wasted Men,” that was made from one month of household waste from the family. “The materials not only highlight a need to address the amount of waste each of us produces, but also tells the story of each individual through the things they discard—a child’s drawings, a shopping list, a birthday card,” she says.

3. Ptolemy Elrington

Parking lots and roadsides everywhere are adorned with damaged and lost hubcaps. But where most of us see garbage, Ptolemy Elrington sees beauty and value. “I believe that things utilitarian, or which give pleasure to the eye have the highest value, he says. “I come across many things which have been abandoned and find something more in them than their intrinsic worthlessness.”

He particularly enjoys working with hubcaps because—while they look nice—they really serve very little purpose. “They’re automatically rubbish when on the side of the road," he says. "But with a little effort and imagination I transform them into something which gives people a great deal more pleasure.”

4. Wim Delvoye

While Belgian artist Wim Delvoye isn’t the first person to create art with used tires, he might just be the most talented name in the niche. That’s because his utterly gorgeous creations manage to maintain the structure of the tires while incorporating elements from nature, such as flowers and vines, so the viewer thinks of the delicate beauty of Mother Earth while never forgetting that they are looking at something totally industrial.

The artist uses no mechanical devices during the reworking process to make his masterpieces, and tough car and tractor tires take a very long time to manually carve and sculpt.

5. Tim Noble and Sue Webster

When people first witness Tim Noble’s and Sue Webster’s Shadow Sculptures, they tend to just see a heap of trash piled up in some meaningless order. But once the creations are lit from the right angle, the artistic merit of the works finally becomes obvious. That’s because the shadows create incredibly detailed images of profiles of the artists, animals and more. Even the selection of the trash itself lends a deeper meaning to the artwork than a quick glance would tell you. For example, in “Dirty White Trash (with Gulls),” the pile of trash is made from the remains of everything the artists needed to survive for the six months it took them to complete the sculpture.

6. Yuken Teruya

We tend to toss toilet paper rolls into the garbage without even giving a second thought as to where they came from or where they will go, but Japanese artist Yuken Teruya’s “Corner Forest” series reminds us all that these simple cardboard tubes were once part of a majestic forest—forests that could be wiped out if we continue our use-once-and-destroy culture.

7. Rodney "Rodrigo" McCoubrey

Unlike many artists working with recycled materials, who feel their work carries a serious and somber meaning, the theme of Rodney McCoubrey’s work is “fun”—and it certainly shows. In fact, many of his works look like vivid and beautiful reinterpretations of children’s drawings.

While the San Diego resident is happy to gather materials out of dumpsters and next to roadsides in any city, he particularly loves fishing for inspiration around dumpsites in Baja California—a preference that no doubt influences his work.

8. Jane Perkins

Before starting a career in the arts, Jane Perkins was first a nurse for 17 years and then a stay-at-home mom for 10 more. It wasn’t until she started studying textiles at the Somerset College of Arts and Technology in 2006 that she realized how much she enjoyed working with recycled materials and, since 2008, she’s been working exclusively in that vein.

Like McCoubrey, Jane feels recycled art is a fun challenge. She particularly enjoys the unexpected surprises she uncovers as she takes inspiration from objects she discovers at recycling centers and junkyards. These days, though, she does a lot less foraging for objects to use in her work—once people in her neighborhood found out what she did, they started leaving bags of their unwanted junk on her doorstep.

Jane’s most famous creations are her celebrity portraits and her recreations of master artists' famous artworks, both of which often cost upwards of $3000. To create these masterpieces, Perkins starts out with a large photo of the person or artwork she will be depicting, and then she starts attaching appropriately colored objects to the image.

9. Miguel Rivera

From robots to race cars, Miguel Rivera’s creations prove that just because a hard drive has crashed doesn’t mean it is completely useless. Unsurprisingly, the artist found his inspiration in his day job as a systems administrator on an overseas U.S. Air Force base, where he came across ample broken hard drives and decided to do something with them.

His first creation was a race car made from 33 hard drives. The body was mostly one whole drive, but the wheels took eight discs a piece. As he started making more and more designs, the creations became more and more complex until he created his most detailed creation to date: the massive robot he calls his masterpiece. The robot contains 14 whole laptop hard drives, pieces from 18 other drives, and a few other spare computer parts.

While many artists stress and strain trying to create their work, the fact that Rivera is still creating his designs as a hobby ensures that it is something he continues to enjoy. “It’s my therapy after a five-day, 12-hour-shift work week,” he says.

10. Robert Bradford

Like Rivera, Robert Bradford has maintained another career the entire time he has worked as an artist. While he has always wanted to work in the art field, Robert didn’t want to have to be dependent on sales to maintain his livelihood, so he worked in the mental health industry after college. He ended up finding mental health to be fascinating as well, so even after his art career started to take off, he trained to become a psychotherapist part time.

In 2004, Bradford started using old toys to create sculptures. One of the most fascinating aspects of his work though remains his close connections with psychotherapy and the study of the mind, a theme that is reflected in his works, particularly those created with trashed toys. “There is also often talk about consumerism waste and recycling, which whilst not being my central concern is also in my view positive when it occurs,” he says.

11. Leo Sewell

While most artists working with recycled materials get into the idea later on in life, Leo Sewell grew up in a dump and was assembling pieces of trash together even as a boy. Since then, he’s actually developed and mastered his own assemblage technique involving nuts, bolts, and screws, enabling his creations to bear striking likenesses to the creatures he models them after while still allowing the bits of trash inside to be easily seen and recognized.

By culling trash from all over Philadelphia, Sewell has been able to create installations of all sizes, from a lifesize house cat to a 40-foot-tall torch. In many cases, the materials reflect the subject; for example, his boxer sculpture features a number of dog chew toys.

What do you guys think of recycled artworks like these? Are they an effective way to tell others about the importance of saving the planet? An ugly and preachy annoyance? Or something else entirely?

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November 12, 2012 - 7:11pm
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