Local Artists Find Inspiration in Trash

Photo: Suzanne Husky's art exhibit on display in San Francisco features structures called
Taryn Erhardt/Photo
Suzanne Husky's art exhibit on display in San Francisco features structures called "sleeper cells" solely created from recycled materials.

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Suzanne Husky spent the last four months rummaging through the trash.

She wore steel-toed boots and pushed a shopping cart while scavenging for planks of wood at the Recology San Francisco Public Disposal Area, commonly known as "the dump."

A former Berkeley resident, Husky is part of the Recology Artist in Residence program, which invites artists from the Bay Area to create sculptures or paintings from materials that are on their way to the landfill. The program is meant to encourage people to take another look at what they are throwing out.

Husky's work - on display this past weekend at the Recology Solid Waste Transfer and Recycling Center - reminds viewers to be conscious of their waste; the sculptures are not only crafted from recycled materials, but the pieces themselves illustrate a choice to reduce an environmental footprint. She created what she calls "sleeper cells," small habitable wooden structures meant to function as homes, intended for people who make "an environmental choice to live off the grid."

"They have a space you can sleep in and a few spaces where you can have tchotchkes, but it's super minimal," she said.

The structures, which appear to have been pulled from a story book, are intended to entertain as well as educate. At the Saturday exhibit, children explored the small houses, but also marveled at the simplicity with which Husky advocates live.

"My work revolves around our intimate relations with plants, animals and the earth," Husky said. "Through my art practice, I investigate the exploitation of natural resources, landscape use and globalization. Recently, I have focused on ... the idealism of historical and contemporary 'back to the land' movements and solitary acts of environmental consciousness."

Since the program began in 1990, almost ninety artists have passed through the dump for four-month periods. It is hosted by Recology, a privately-owned company that provides waste, recycling and composting services to more than 50 communities in California and Oregon, according to Deborah Munk, director of the Artist in Residence program.

The growth of companies like Recology, which, with the city of San Francisco, began the first curbside food waste composting program in the nation in San Francisco, reflects a larger movement toward environmental awareness, with cities and counties looking to achieve goals of "zero waste" in the upcoming years. Berkeley, along with Alameda County, aims to eventually produce no waste and instead recycle or compost all refuse. Recology recently took over Berkeley's composting facility.

"The aim of the Artist in Residence program is to encourage people to look a little more closely at their own garbage and see that ... these are all resources," said Robert Reed, spokesperson for the company. "That garbage isn't garbage at all - it's a mix of resources."

Ferris Plock, another artist in the program with Husky, said he was inspired by his "overwhelming" experience digging through the waste with Husky at the transfer station.

"The first two weeks were spent jaw-dropped," Plock said.

The two had to wear protective masks, helmets, vests and boots while inside the facility, sifting through old clothes, sheets of glass, unopened cans and bottles, among other things.

"There's a lot of fumes; it's not a joke," Husky said. "I started coughing."

Plock, who found several old paint tubes and brushes for his art, and Husky both expressed amazement at the number of items people throw away.

"Unfortunately, the dump provides (us) with much more than it should," Husky said. "Truckloads of hundreds of perfectly good chairs from a corporate business refurnishing offices, or a grocery store that goes out of business and tosses everything, an expiration date goes bad and crates and crates of organic juices, hundred of toys that are used once and broke go to the landfill daily. Every citizen should have to work at the dump for a month."

Although Husky's term in the Artist in Residence program is over, she plans to continue with this project.

The city of San Francisco recently awarded her a grant to create more sleeper cells, and a collection of them will be installed in the city's downtown, she said. Husky added that the upcoming pieces will also be made with recycled materials.

"Sculpting with discarded materials is a proactive environmental choice," she said. "I never buy materials - that's my policy."


Soumya Karlamangla is the lead environment reporter. Contact her at [email protected]

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