Recycling is nothing new for artists – even a Renaissance man like Michelangelo reused canvases when he wanted to paint over a picture. But in San Francisco, we turn trash into treasure all year long. Since 1990, Recology (formerly SF Recycling & Disposal, Inc.) has run a unique artist-in-residence program: they select two artists to work side-by-side in a studio at the Solid Waste Transfer and Recycling Center for four months at a time. I decided to spend part of a day with two of these artists, David Hevel and James Sansing, a few days before their opening to figure out what it's like to create an entire show from scratch, using only the materials found during scavenging sessions at the dump.
many artists who go through the residency, Sansing and Hevel spent the
first few weeks – actually, more like months – bummed out. Every day
they showed up to the giant Public Access Dump (PAD) conveniently
located next to the studio - where people line up to dump furniture,
electronics, dry wall, etc. from their homes or offices – with shopping
carts. They would dig through trash, fill up carts, dump it at the
studio, and then repeat, ad nauseum. "I was really, really affected,"
Hevel said, "The PAD is so over-stimulating, visually – it's a lot to
look at. And the way people's trash was being mixed together saddened
Sansing concurred. "I was depressed, too. It was just never-ending." He added that he spoke to one former artist who warned him of this situation. This artist got so overwhelmed on his first day that he found a DVD player, a TV and a DVD in the dump, took them back to the studio and just watched movies instead of working.
While sympathizing in theory, I didn't really understand what they were talking about until I went on a tour of the PAD. It's a huge concrete structure with a roof and openings at two ends. Cars and trucks wait in line to dump their contents into a giant pile, maybe 20 feet tall. Earthmovers rumble to and fro, compacting the gray debris into solid forms and occasionally, unbelievably, spearing a couch or some large object onto its claws. Torn and dirty mattresses stand at the edge of the entrance, having been dragged across the floor as some kind of oversize washcloth. The effect was disorienting, to say the least. I couldn't wait to leave.
Deborah Munk, director of the Art in Residence program, said that between the two of them, approximately 21,120 pounds have been hauled from the dump to the studio. Making art from trash is physically, as well as emotionally, demanding.
much prompting, Sansing and Hevel launched into a description of their
most exciting finds: 100 Ikea chairs, barely worn; a $10 Confederate
bill; a pair of matching platinum wedding rings; a brand-new gas grill;
an untouched leather couch and so on. After they got over their shock
at the noisy reality of working at a dump, they had to control
The process was, Sansing declared, "seductive." Hevel said, laughing, that he literally dreamed about finding a bag of diamonds. It's easy to lose track of time while sorting through the messy material, looking for that one last perfect thing. Hevel said that his stamina wasn't quite as much as Sansing's – four to five hours was his maximum – but he was equally lured into the collector mentality. The challenge for both of them was to do more than simply hoard interesting finds: they had to transform them into art. But, still, up through the last week of his residency, Sansing couldn't resist donning the fluorescent vest and venturing into the wilds.
Hevel and Sansing both managed to make grotesquely lovely sculptural pieces in spite of initial hardships. Hevel reacted to the mess of the dump by pulling out color: his 3-D framed portraits of bucktooth faces rely heavily on pinks and reds and oranges. They are funny and moving, like deranged Jim Henson puppets pinned to the wall. Sansing used a grey and brown palate in his deconstructed mechanical mini-landscapes. He took apart typewriters and adding machines and added organic touches from the few plants he found in the dump – tiny branches appear to be growing out of the industrial pieces.
Munk says that she has received over 107 applications for next year's class of five residents. San Francisco is the only municipality in the country to offer such a program. It's an idea whose time has come; Munk says that she routinely fields questions from other cities around the country about the program but none have yet to put the resources behind it. Perhaps artists have heard of another perk to the program: every artist-in-residence gets lifetime access to the dump, which is not a public salvage yard.
A tour of PAD and the neighboring transfer station unearthed great creativity in this unlikely location. On the hill overlooking the PAD, workers have taken it upon themselves to make an eerie monument to the stranger oversize objects that have come through – a giant fading tiger, a huge costume head (looking kind of like Spike Jonze's "Where the Wild Things Are" creatures), many lawn ornaments. Near the smelly hole that is the transfer station – a wasteland of garbage that is roughly the length of a football field and 15 ft. deep – is the official sculpture garden. It is three acres long and composed of recycled plant materials from, of course, the dump. And on an even smaller scale, reclaimed objects and signs litter the place, from Munk's office to a small plastic gorilla perched on a concrete slab. The dump is noisy, dirty and alienating, for sure, but also inspiring.
Design: MacFadden & Thorpe