Artists create art and community at the dump


A halting music box tune creaks out as a birdcage packed with pottery shards spins on a video screen. The forlorn melody doesn’t damper the spirits of the crowd gathered around a table heaped with reclaimed fabric scraps. Artist Ramekon O’Arwisters presides over the group, handing out custom-designed giant crochet hooks, a fuchsia fleece “Pussy Power” beanie perched jauntily on his head. He shows the onlookers, appearing to range in age from 4 to 90, how to tie together the long strips, tie a loop on the large cedar hook, and carefully guide the hook through the loop to create a chain.

“Now, what is this crochet going to be?” asked one of the older crocheters, creating a tidy, multicolored square. “Aha,” O’Arwisters answered. “The whole practice is about social interaction and creativity. There’s no focus on the finished product. Whatever you make, you accept what it is. The rags are just a conduit for social interaction.”

O’Arwisters is one of three artists completing residencies at Recology, a municipal waste management contractor for Bay Area cities like San Francisco and San Mateo. The competitive residency is awarded to local student and professional artists ranging from audio artists to photographers, weavers and even social commentary artists like O’Arwisters. Each artist gets an empty studio, a hard hat and a shopping cart to push through the Recology San Francisco Solid Waste Transfer and Recycling Center — the “dump.” After six months of scavenging and creating, filling those carts with whatever they want, O’Arwisters, Anja Ulfeldt and Jinmei Chi, last season’s residents, shared their work with the public for Recology’s free Open Studios event on Jan. 20 and 21.

In 1989, California passed State Law 939, which required jurisdictions to divert at least half their waste from landfills by the new millennium. Recology, which had its origins in Italian immigrants collecting and sorting trash in San Francisco during the mid 1800s, now services almost a million residential and commercial customers in California, Oregon and Washington. When the landfill diversion law passed in the late 1980s, Recology (then Norcal Solid Waste Systems) had been recently sold to its employees and was poised to meet this environmental and cultural challenge head on. The company initiated a communication campaign to promote environmental awareness. A local activist-artist, Jo Hanson, suggested they recruit artists to increase recycling awareness, and the residency began. Nearly 30 years later, more than 150 professional and student artists have collectively created thousands of sculptures, videos, paintings and collages in their time at Recology – all with materials collected from the dump.

O’Arwisters said his “Crochet Jam” activity was intentionally community-oriented, a balance to his sculptures focused on his inner emotions. Shards of ceramic pottery – some found broken, others he shattered, and sanded to softness – are packed in and overflowing from antique birdcages, a claw-foot tub and exploding window frames around the studio, on Tunnel Avenue in San Francisco.

By using reclaimed materials, this work was a meditation on the sustainability of self. “Things here are always being thrown away, discarded. That’s what’s happening in the world around me,” O’Arwisters remarked. “And I thought, what’s happening on the inside, do I feel thrown away? And how can I find a symbol that can speak universally to that feeling?”

Up a ramp from O’Arwisters’ studio is the work of another resident artist, Anja Ulfeldt. While O’Arwisters’ sculptures used cracked pottery, Ulfeldt’s work focuses on the cracks in society. I overhear another visitor recalling a previous tour of Ulfeldt’s studio, where she sat in an old chair, modified with a speaker to amplify its squeaking sounds, highlighting instead of hiding its history and wornness. Ulfeldt’s exhibition, “Beyond Repair,” combines everyday objects in actively useless ways, reminiscent of Duchamp’s “Bicycle Wheel” (a wheel mounted on a stool that could only spin in the air). For example, inflated pants emerging from a suitcase ring a small bell as they flap like a DIY car-lot inflatable. Her work, while opaque, emerges naturally from the regional ecology and a culture that values “disruption” and constant technological rebirth. One piece incorporates a fake wall from a technology company trade show.

The student artist-in-residence, Jinmei Chi, put consumerism under a microscope in her installation “Dizz Mall.” She has created a mock “big box” store, complete with coupon ads, saccharine radio advertisements and bead-board racks stacked with plastic bags full of discarded miscellany. The young artist, clad in a Cosby sweater and purple Doc Martens boots, beams as patrons of all ages inquire about her work — the youngest wondering whether they can play with the toys “for sale” and the oldest questioning the environmental implications of consumerism and art.

“What are you going to do with all of this, when you’re done?” asks Anna Wietelmann, a Stanford student and artist. Chi explains Recology will select three pieces from each artist for its permanent collection.

But, ultimately, most materials will return to where they came, into Recology’s waste stream. Some items may end up in other artists’ shopping carts; most will re-enter the Transfer Station’s stream of recyclables, to be sorted and sent to the appropriate recycling or composting facility to begin their next lives.