Trash Reimagined: 5 Down-to-Earth Upcycling Artists

Single-use plastic was introduced soon after the Fresh Kills landfill opened in the 1940s. Instead of reducing or reusing, Americans began to love the ease of just throwing things away. No need to wash the dishes- just toss them! The increase in disposable items and the accompanying rise of “throwaway culture” was one factor that led to the Fresh Kills Landfill’s growth.

Upcycling, along with reducing and recycling, is a creative antidote to throwaway culture. Upcycling involves reusing objects for practical or aesthetic purposes, prolonging their usefulness and diverting them from a landfill. These five artists are more likely to place trash in a museum exhibit or use it to create a homemade instrument than throw it on the curb. Their art pushes viewers to rethink disposability. Does that really need to be thrown away, or can it be upcycled?

Mierle Laderman Ukeles

The Social Mirror at Sneak Peak in 2010

Mierle Laderman Ukeles is the artist-in-residence for the Department of Sanitation. Though her work does not specifically use upcycled objects, Ukeles creates sculpture and performance art pieces that explore the role of waste in human society. Her work The Social Mirror, constructed in 1983, attaches a mirror to the outside of the sanitation truck, forcing viewers to see themselves as part of the process of sanitation and waste. ‘The mirror captures you, but people are afraid to be caught by it,’ said Ukeles. “You’re right there, part of the whole deal. It’s about the interrelationship between the people who provide the services and the people that get the services.’ Ukeles was an early advocate for the Fresh Kills landfill to be transformed into a park and was a key contributor to the Master Plan. She designed “LANDING,” the first planned artistic structure in Freshkills Park.


Skip LaPlante and Bash the Trash

Skip LaPlante is a musician and upcycler who specializes in making instruments

Photo by Michael Anton/DSNY

from recycled materials. As a Discovery Day workshop leader, LaPlante guides participants through building intricate wind chimes from repurposed materials. His work also includes more complex instruments, like harps and multi-story water sculptures. LaPlante works with Materials for the Arts, which repurposes supplies and scrap materials for artistic purposes, and Bash the Trash, which works in schools and community organizations to build instruments out of trash. Want to make your own instrument from waste? Check out Bash the Trash’s guide to building your own musical instruments.

Nelson Molina

Photo by Librado Romero/The New York Times

Nelson Molina worked for the Department of Sanitation for 34 years. On his route, Molina often found valuable items: old toys, paintings, awards, antiques, and more. He collected thousands of objects in a makeshift museum in a DSNY warehouse. His finds are organized into exhibits chronicling decades of interesting stuff that New Yorkers threw away. Virtually visit the museum with this short documentary about Molina’s work.


Matt Lorenz – The Suitcase Junket

Photo by Melissa Alderton

The Suitcase Junket is the solo project of musician Matt Lorenz. Born in Vermont and living in western Massachusetts, Lorenz is a musician whose one-man-band is constructed largely of upcycled materials. From his bass drum (an old suitcase) that is operated by a pedal constructed of an old baby shoe, to the wooden box of old trinkets and tools that makes up part of his percussion, he is a master of finding the potential in overlooked items. His guitar was even found in a dumpster. Check out his most recent video for High Beams, the catchy Everything I Like, and this recent cover of Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody.

Alejandro Durán

Mar (Sea), 2013

Alejandro Durán is a Brooklyn-based multimedia artist originally from Mexico City. In his photo series, Washed Up, Durán collected plastic waste that he found on the shorelines of Sian Ka’an, a UNESCO World Heritage site on Mexico’s Caribbean coast. He arranged the discarded waste along the shoreline to create stunning yet haunting images. As Durán states, “the resulting photo series depicts a new form of colonization by consumerism, where even undeveloped land is not safe from the far-reaching impact of our culture of disposable products.” Check out his TED Talk for more on his artistic process and motivation to bring attention to our ocean waste.

Upcycle your Stream time into STEAM time

Using upcycled items for art reduces demand for new materials and waste destined for the landfill.  Did any of these down to Earth upcycling artists inspire you to get creative with what you have available?

Share your thoughts on upcycling and art this week on social media using #FreshkillsUpStream

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