Tuesday, 18 October 2016 13:34

Talkin' Trash: from plastics to art


wiry sculpture, about 18 inches tall, with blue plastic chips and abstract pieces of plastic
On October 2, I boarded a pontoon boat with about 8 other volunteers - a future merchant marine, a corporate communications worker, a vet tech, a man and his 8 year old daughter, some retirees. We had one thing in common: we care about our beautiful three rivers and we arrived to pick up trash and recycling with the Tireless Project.  The Re:NEW festival had heard about this through Janee Romesberg of Allegheny CleanWays and Mary Kate Ranii of Pennsylvania Resources Council when they came to our offices to talk about the Wild and Scenic Film Festival.  They talked about this mythic boat that sailed the Mon in search of rubbish, and I knew I had to see it, for myself. 

The Tireless Project has shepherded 3,595 volunteers to remove 545,063 pounds of debris, including 3,314 tires and 24,365 pounds of metal and other recyclables – all from from our riverbanks and streams. As the City strives to address chronic water and sewer issues with green infrastructure and structural improvements, organizations such as Allegheny CleanWays and Friends of the Riverfront continue their on-the-ground work, eradicating litter and advocating for better policy.

As we removed about a ton of trash and recycling, plus one tire, in less than 90 minutes, I had a hard time fathoming what I was seeing.  Like little bits of Styrofoam that marine life confuse as fish eggs and ingest.  Or, the waste produced by people living on the riverfront. On the Mon Wharf, a man called out to me from the Smithfield Street Bridge, “Hey you – HEEEEEYYY!” I looked up. A man with a scruffy dog was staring down at me as I was hauling debris in 55-gallon blue plastic drums, headed for the boat.  “Hey, see that black plastic bag with clothes in the corner?? That’s MINE – please leave it!”  We communicated through shouts and hand signals, eventually coming to an understanding. His encampment would stay intact, the trash and recycling would go.

What about the plastic - the mounds of plastic and Styrofoam that spews forth from portals, directly entering our waterways and impacting marine and human life, at the cellular level?  I was having a hard time getting depressed.

What’s this got to do with art?

Artists have long made art from debris and cast offs, with a growing number of artists making art from the plastics and debris from oceans and waterways like Washed Ashore. I knew this, conceptually, but it went to the next level when I met artist Daniel Lanzilotta at the closing reception of the Drap-Art exhibition.  This artist from the Bronx makes work directly from plastics he mines from waterways. He and his fiancée, Marae, are headed to Haiti tomorrow to a plastics conference, merging environmental and artistic concerns on the heels of Hurricane Matthew. His enthusiasm and pure commitment is one example of how to turn a depressing topic like litter into an unending mode of creativity.


Discussion with Daniel Lanzilotta, artist

Well, basically what happened was that I was living in France on the Atlantic, as an artist and theater person, which I studied at CMU in the 80s.

I was going to the beach with my son and I was always making and building and fidgeting, and would make little plastic things and as this progressed, I made the rules - I couldn’t use anything but what I found on the beach and I couldn’t use anything but my Leatherman or knife. I started making this language and putting things together and it was fascinating me -  I would make these things while my kid was playing.  After a while I was finding the same things- microbeads, wheels, etc. and I started spreading out on the beaches and seeing that this same stuff was washing up, everywhere – I was traveling on the beaches all the way to Spain and seeing all of it.

My son got older and I continued on making the art, and I started saying: there is more and more of this stuff, and it’s not going away, this plastic.  At this time, my girlfriend’s daughter was killed at the age of 12 in a terrible truck accident. She won the sustainability award for the state of Connecticut for using bamboo to create pizza boxes – she came up with the way to make the box sustainable with bamboo. Then, she was killed.

Back in France this year, I made a dedicated show to her with 26 sculptures, all from plastics from the beaches. I mounted the memorial show in a gallery, and I decided that I was now an environmentalist.

The response to the show was quite staggering -  I did not expect that, at all.  I started posting to social media and someone from the Bronx saw a post and invited me to become a Bronx 200 artist because I was born and raised in the Bronx. Suddenly, I started getting shows in Brooklyn, Connecticut, and then on to Drap-Art.

As all of this discourse started happening, I shipped the show from France and then went off to the Bronx Museum for the 200 Bronx artists with people from all over the world.  I was walking around at the exhibition and I met Marae, my compatriot in this work and now my future wife.

I then did four shows with Trashion Fashion, getting incredible response from them, and continuing to get stuff out of the waste stream and transforming it into garments. I went to the initial artists’ meet up with these accessories, also thinking about Interwrap - the thousands of miles of tarps that cover lumber on trucks – miles of this stuff is either burnt, goes into landfills, or enters the waterways. I started taking this out of the waste stream, these 12 foot rolls of stuff. A designer ended up making a smoking jacket out of it, which was accompanied on the runway with the accessories and a hat made from ocean and street debris.

Somebody in England sent Drap-Art curator Tanja Grass my information and she immediately responded and said she wanted two pieces for the Pittsburgh show – this is my first Drap-Art show, here in Pittsburgh. I cannot really believe how transformed Pittsburgh is from when I was a student – it’s so convivial and interesting – I want to do more work, here.

Especially after the past four years of my declaration as an environmental artist, my life has really exploded. Marae and I are now together, working on these trash fashion shows in Dumbo, now we’re in Haiti participating in a conference with a two-part mission – humanitarian with food and supplies, and cleaning up the river and transforming that debris into art. The Haitian artisans are very well-versed at using hand tools from carnivale, and making use of what’s at hand – this is not going to be amateur hour down there, no.

 We’ll also be addressing what they will do with the plastics – they currently burn it, which is not good. There is work being done on biodegradable plastics using sugar from molymers and polymers with an entire industry, but this will take time.

I have 20 years of experience with the ocean, now.  My son will be 23 years old.  The debris used to be at my ankle, now it’s at my knee.  The ocean is literally vomiting up plastics.  Every choice we make is a choice to either preserve or destroy the environment.


Published in The Arts Blog


Group of ten artists from international locations, standing in an arrangement for a group portrait, in front of a sparkly wall
Transcribed from a conversation between Jen Saffron and Tanja Grass, in Tanja's voice:

The special thing about the Re:NEW Festival is the number of artists that have been able to travel to Pittsburgh from Spain, Argentina, Germany, and other parts of the U.S. - eleven in all. This enriching experience means these artists not only have their artwork shown in Drap-Art, they have been able to exchange with cultural people here in Pittsburgh – other artists, curators, writers. Touring places like Mattress Factory with curator and co-director Michael Olijnyk or having direct conversations with Catherine Evans, Chief Curator of the Carnegie Museum of Art, provide important learning and sharing moments.

And, some artists ave led and participated in educational programs here, like giving workshops and talks, and this has also been enriching for the young people in Pittsburgh as they have been able to create an artwork, talk with an international artist, learn about their life and work. Dolo Navas and Marcel-lí Antúnez Roca were visiting artists at Pittsburgh CAPA, working with high school grades.  These artists and teachers shared an experience, together, learning about each other’s practices. By working with these international artists, students have been able to work in an unaccustomed way, like working with teacher Karen Page to showcase students' fashions for the Fashion Extravaganza this coming Friday night.

Marcel-lí and Tom Higgs, teacher at CAPA, made a large-scale sculpture out of discarded plastic bottles, and then the students who made the piece with Marcel-lí  paraded it through the streets –  fun, empowering and opening horizons for the young people here and for the artists, too, some of which have never been to the U.S. These experiences are eye opening for everyone.

Really, this whole educational part of Drap-Art is very important, because it’s the young people who are going to make the changes.

We’re living in a society in which to have apparent comfort, we are destroying the planet with disposable plastics, which are very practical because you can separate your food, get something to drink, but you can just as well use non-disposable items to handle this. Taking your cloth bag to shop instead of tons of plastic bags would make all the difference because right now, we are invading the planet with plastics, we are even eating microplastics when we eat fish. It’s very obvious that this can’t go on, much longer or we will all turn into plastics, ourselves – it’s already happening on the cellular level in humans.

Drap-Art is all about awareness raising in a fun way.  Because either one doesn’t care about the environment, or one thinks it’s too late, it’s catastrophic. The plastic industry wants us to feel this way, to get discouraged and confused and feel we can’t do anything about it so that we’ll just keep buying and consuming. We as the consumers are the ones that have to make the difference because companies are going to make and sell what people buy.

This is what Stephanie Senge’s artwork is all about – she's here now, for the last part of the Re:NEW Festival to build a public mandala made out of consumer goods. She is saying: HEY, CONSUMER! Take consciousness about what it is that you are consuming! 

Educating in a fun way encourages people. People come out of our exhibitions with a smile on their face AND an understanding that the plastics industry is a real problem. They can start to use less, use cloth bags. Think if you used one less plastic bag a day – that’s 365 less plastic bags a year. What if you did not buy a disposable coffee cup, but used a nice metal one with a handle? It’s better for you, better for the planet.

Already now, we’re working on our annual festival in Barcelona, which is from December 16 – December 31, smack in the middle of consumer Christmas. Stephanie Senge will also participate there, for which we’re planning a consumer demonstration with materials prepared in a workshop. Workshop participants will make placards with slogans like, “CONSUMER IDEALISM” and “CONSUMER ECSTASY” or “BE A STRONG CONSUMER, KNOW WHAT YOU WANT” and collaborate to create sculptures made from consumer goods – we will parade these sculptures/statues as if they were part of a religious procession.

Stephanie is thinking of recreating the Black Madonna with a very typical biscuit brand on her lap instead of the baby – they are called Maria cookies – to point out how consumerism is covering the need for religion - consuming not because we need to but because we are substituting needs – consumer goods for love, community, spiritualism.

And, that is what good art does; it points out things people do unconsciously, making us more aware of what we’re doing and perhaps why we are doing it. Hopefully, this will help us change and make life better for ourselves and the planet.

Pictured is the Drap-Art artists and team, left to right starting in the back row: Bill Miller (Pittsburgh), Gao Yansong (China/US), Maria Paz (Barcelona), Dolo Navas (Barcelona), Rubén Santurián (Uruguay/US), Imanol Ossa (Barcelona), Haydee Acero (Argentina), Karol Bergeret (Barcelona). Front row: Marcel-li Antunez Roca (Barcelona), Drap-Art founder and curator Tanja Grass (Barcelona).


Published in The Arts Blog


people looking at a neon sign in a gallery that reads A R T vertically
The idea of art made from reused materials may summon up images of beer-can sculptures and wire-hanger mobiles. But visitors to Drap-Art, an international arts exhibition featuring works made of reused materials set to open this weekend as part of the Re:NEW Festival, are in for a surprise if those are their expectations.

“These are not at all the most obvious ways of reusing materials,” said Russell Howard, vice president of special events and development with the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, and one of the key collaborators involved in bringing the esteemed international exhibition to Pittsburgh.

You have only to look around the Drap-Art exhibition at the PPG Wintergarden, located in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh, to see examples of what Howard means.

Using strategically painted egg cartons, artist Veronica Arellanocreates a life-sized portrait. Ironing boards adorned with discarded silverware are the canvases for scenes of domestic life. Artist Irene Wolfi creates landscape “paintings” out of strips of labels and discarded plastic—in the middle of an ocean scene, the blow-up valve from an inflatable raft or beach ball juts out of the artwork.

Elsewhere in the expansive Wintergarden space, the more than 60 artists showing their work incorporate materials as varied as piano keys, light bulbs, television parts, electronic circuits and discarded computer keyboards, neon tubes, salvaged wood, corrugated cardboard, scrap metal, and rusted chains.

It would be easy for a visitor, taking in the exhibit’s 130 pieces, to forget that the accomplished international artists, working in a wide array of styles and media, had anything at all in common.

The exhibition will make its North American premiere in Pittsburgh during the Re:NEW Festival, a month-long celebration of creative re-use that will include art exhibits, public art tours, markets for upcycled goods, performances, and more. Drap-Art, whose name comes from the Catalonian “drap” for “rag,” has exhibited extensively across Europe and in Asia since its first exhibitions in 1996.

The Wintergarden gallery (http://www.ppgplace.com/directory/wintergarden/), populated by lush plants and housed within peaked glass roofs, will be open from September 9 through October 8, beginning at 10am each day and closing at 4pm. Monday through Thursday, and at 6pm on Fridays and Saturdays. The gallery will be open until 9pm during the gallery crawl on Friday, September 23.

Tanja Grass, curator and president of Drap-Art, will mark the exhibit’s opening day on Saturday, September 10, with a 1pm talk in the exhibition space. Her talk will be followed by presentations from exhibiting artists Marcel-li Antunez, a painter and performance artist, at 2pm.; Imanol Ossa, sculptor and artist, at 3pm.; Karol Bergeret, sculptor and performance artist, at 4pm,; and Dolo Navas, fiber and fashion artist, at 5pm. All talks are free.

On Sunday, September 11, Grass and Antunez will speak on the history and highlights of Drap-Art. Their talks will be held at the Carnegie Museum of Art, 4400 Forbes Avenue, Oakland, from 1 to 3 p.m., and are free to the public.

On Saturday, October 1, the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Re-Use will hold a hands-on art-making activity for artists of all ages in the Wintergarden gallery, drawing on the Drap-Art pieces for inspiration. The event is free and runs from noon to 4pm.

And on Friday, October 7, the Wintergarden will host a Fashion Extravaganza featuring garments, accessories, and jewelry crafted from reused materials, with designs by local fiber artists, fashion designers, and Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts 6–12 students, who worked with Drap-Arts exhibiting artist Dolo Navas while she was in residency at the school. The event is free and runs from 7 to 9 p.m. 

The exhibit is among the highest-profile attractions of the Festival, which runs from September 9 through October 9 at locations throughout the city. Drap-Art’s participation underscores the international character of Re:NEW and of the emerging idea of creative reuse. With artists from Spain, China, India, England, Austria, Germany, Argentina, and the United States, among other nations, Drap-Art highlights the increasingly global emphasis on responsible stewardship of natural resources, embodying the notion that reuse should be at the center not only of daily activities but of creative endeavors as well.

Bringing Drap-Art to downtown Pittsburgh has been a long-term aspiration for Howard, who returned to Pittsburgh three and a half years ago to assume his role with the Downtown Pittsburgh Partnership. It was while helping hang a Drap-Art show in Barcelona several years ago (alongside partner Bill Miller, a Cleveland-born artist who has frequently exhibited with Drap-Art and is exhibiting in the current show) that Howard thought of what a good fit the exhibition would be in Pittsburgh, whose recovery from economic depression is often praised as itself an act of reinvention and creative reuse.

“There’s a deep history here of working with and reusing things,” Howard said.

Reaching out to Jen Saffron at the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, the two forged a steering committee and community partners too numerous to name and, two years in the making, Drap-Art makes its debut, this evening at a VIP reception in the Wintergarden with artists from Spain, Argentina and China present along with local art and business leaders, celebrating Pittsburgh's deep history and its renewal.


Published in The Arts Blog