Sustainable art practices are becoming more commonplace, both in Palm Beach County and around the world
“Sustainability” may sometimes feel like a buzzword, but it has very real implications. The choices we make about the products we purchase—and the life cycle of those products—can have ripple effects for generations. By practicing responsible consumption in order to avoid depleting natural resources or harming the earth with trash, we can contribute to a beneficial ecological balance.
The critical status of our climate has prompted a public urgency to be conscious consumers and advocates for environmental health—calls that extend to the art community. “With sustainability, you need to embrace the connectivity of how what you do impacts somebody else who you may never meet,” says Jennifer O’Brien, executive director of Resource Depot in West Palm Beach. “If we start to see more artists who are pulling this into their bodies of work, then these conversations might be more frequent.”
One type of sustainable art is upcycling, a topic O’Brien knows a lot about. Resource Depot is a nonprofit organization that aims to tackle the county’s growing waste problem by collecting donations of unwanted items that creatives can turn into art. At the Resource Depot marketplace, the idiom that one person’s trash is another’s treasure rings true every day.
“What makes us so unique is we’re talking about an act that can happen over and over again, and that’s reuse,” O’Brien explains. “Artists see that their choices matter, and they can tell a story of sustainability through these artistic choices.”
In addition to its marketplace, Resource Depot organizes gallery shows and educational initiatives. On April 23, it will present its annual Catwalk Student Fashion Show featuring student-made wearable art created from nontraditional materials. The following day, it will host a Rescued Runway Clothing Exchange to encourage closed-loop fashion, another type of sustainable consumerism.
Artists across the county are taking up the mantle of sustainability, both in using uniquemediums and infusing their works with critical messages. “We need to push ourselves much harder to be good stewards of our earth,” says Lucy Keshavarz, founder of Art & Culture Group Inc., which specializes in site-specific public and eco artworks. A lover of science, Keshavarz honors the natural world in projects such as Ripple…As a Drop of Water Becomes a River, which will be part of a stormwater treatment area in Old Palm City.
For Autumn Kioti, upcycling “trash” into art can result in a magical intervention for artist and audience. “It is my hope that their mind does a little somersault to reframe their view of what is disposable, what can be art, and who can make art,” says the Boca Raton resident. Currently, she’s sourcing objects from Resource Depot and garbage from beach clean-ups to create an installation that will address issues such as climate change, migration, and displacement.
“I feel like artists have a singular ability to pose difficult and sometimes daring questions,” Kioti adds. “If I can get people to look upon all things on our planet as equally worthy, if we can together open our eyes to the places we have been blind to, acknowledge that blindness and see those mistakes, we can move forward to create a more equitable system for all.”
Extra Q&A with Artists
Autumn Kioti, autumnkioti.com
A&C: Why is it important to you to use repurposed materials within your art?
Kioti: Because it’s magic! Trash art can be absolute magic. When a viewer connects to a piece of art or a performance through the recognition that it is made up of items they discarded yesterday without a second thought, [that’s] magic. It is my hope that their mind does a little somersault to reframe their view of what is disposable, what can be art, and who can make art. And it, of course, inherently addresses the issues created by our disposable society of planned obsolescence. Also, because it’s free.
In what ways do repurposed materials spark your creativity?
It’s interesting because I can’t be too married to the end result before I begin. These objects, this garbage, it is a hallmark of us in this moment; what we discard says so much about who we are as a society, and that most certainly influences me. But whether I find my way into the piece through a particular object or through an issue I’d like to address, the repurposed materials don’t always cooperate and often they want nothing to do with the road map I’ve created. And I love the struggle, the conversation between the object and me. These discarded materials, they’ve already led a whole life. I often have to sit back and let the object lead the way, and the results are sometimes surprising, even to me.
Why is it important to you to tackle issues such as climate change and environmental justice within your work?
I feel like artists have a singular ability to pose difficult and sometimes daring questions. We’re sometimes given a pass on what people see as eccentricity, and this can be a boon. Aristotle and others of his time introduced the concept of Scala Naturae, or the Great Chain of Being, and I think this is one of the more damaging ideas that has ever found a home in the human psyche and it has been an excuse for a lot of bad behavior. I question this hierarchical structure within my work. If I can get people to look upon all things on our planet as equally worthy, if we can together open our eyes to the places we have been blind to, acknowledge that blindness, and see those mistakes, we can move forward to create a more equitable system for all.
Speaking of mistakes, I make a lot of them. I constantly screw up and endure setbacks, and I want to include all of that in my work. We’re all struggling to do what’s right. Mistakes and imperfections are part of that struggle, which brings me back to the use of garbage and how you can’t force it, you have to work with it as it is. In addition, I think it’s also important to mention the confluence of what is happening in our environment, the outer world, and what is happening with our mental health, the inner world.
Can you give an example of one of your works that addresses these issues?
How about a preview of an installation I’m working on for the fall with Resource Depot? I am using repurposed objects from Resource Depot as well as garbage from local beach clean-ups to create an installation dealing with migration, climate change, and displacement. It will include cyanotypes made with repurposed plexiglass and printed on discarded fabric as well as found object birds and other items suspended and set off by a soundscape including spoken word poetry and environmental sounds. We will see where the materials and sounds take me. I am currently in the collecting and experimenting stage, so if there is anyone out there who’d like to contribute cool trash or organize a clean-up, I’d love to hear from you.
What’s something you wish readers knew or understood about sustainable art practices?
Most of all, I wish the public understood that they can do it. Art supplies are not great for the environment, as well as being quite costly. But once you understand that things like old coffee and tea and discarded beets can create ink, that you can transform bottles and boxes and fishing line into something beautiful, a whole new world can open up for you. And what you can’t use, you can recycle, donate, or compost, or share with other artists, like me.
Lucy Keshavarz, Art & Culture Group, artculturegroup.com
A&C: What does it mean to be an environmentally conscious artist and incorporate those practices into your mission?
Keshavarz: In my practice as an artist and I believe with many artists, we have a tendency to be frugal to begin with when it comes to use and reuse of materials. Quite often artists see in “things” what others have not. And just like in any business, an artist is going to think about the expense of materials and labor. In addition, an artist is going to be conscience about how materials affect their environment and their own physical health. So, I feel like my art practice requires me to be much more conscious or connected to the environment to begin with. Combine this with my curiosity for and love of science, and it’s a no-brainer. I try to show respect for and honor our natural world in any and all work that I do. In my EcoArt projects and Native Impressions work it is more obvious, [but it can be] more subliminal in works such as Emerging Mangrove and Shades of Green.
How do green technologies influence the art that you create? Can you provide one or two examples of projects that have incorporated such tech?
Well, I just wish there were more projects that demanded green technologies. For years I have wanted to use solar energy and rainwater harvesting in projects. I am very excited that these technologies will be included in an EcoArt project I am doing with Martin County called Ripple…As a Drop of Water Becomes a River. It is part of a stormwater treatment area in Old Palm City, and we expect construction to be completed this year.
While I definitely think there is a need for green technologies and artists to work together more, I believe it is part of a bigger picture. Art and artists can help communicate basic connections in our day-to-day lives that our human species tends to take for granted. For example, the infrastructure that provides our drinking water or keeps us safe from flooding. Another example is the ecosystem services that native plants and insects provide to our food web. Engaging people in the design of these creative placemaking opportunities is an excellent way to have people reconnect and become good stewards of our environment.
What’s something you wished readers knew or understood about environmentally conscious art?
It’s about hope, creative problem solving, and the desire to spark thoughtfulness from the one creating and the one viewing. And if it feels pushy, it’s because we need to push ourselves much harder to be good stewards of our earth.