Turning Garbage into Functional, Ecological Art


We are a culture that is buried in a world of waste. Some of it is OK because we can recycle it or compost it but some of it is horrible and just heads to our landfills where it will occupy space well past the end of our days. Commercial job sites for example end up with large pieces of structural waste debris that serves no longer serves any purpose for the construction project. This material is not easily recycled and no longer needed so it heads to the dump. Some of this waste is large and occupies a tremendous amount of space and does not easily biodegrade. Luckily, there is a genre of artist who sees beyond what would appear to be garbage at these commercial sites and instead see inspiration. Like the sculptor who see the statue hidden in the stone, these artist see the potential of repurposing  waste into something beautiful .They have a vision and they translate that through various different modalities into a piece of art.

In my neighborhood there is an interior designer, Brett Hayden, with an amazing skill of being able to see and re-purpose waste materials into beautiful functional art. He is an avid surfer, lover of the environment and committed to recreating waste into wonderful environmental art. He calls the process Upcycling and it is essentially the process of converting waste materials or useless products into new materials or products of better quality or for better environmental value. Brett says some of his inspiration comes from an artist from his native home of South African. According to Brett, "The highest form of up-cycling just might be W. African Romwald Hazoume with his creative re-use or up-cycle of discarded plastic gasoline and fuel canisters to resemble traditional African masks”. This ability to see in a different light such a common waste material is the real gift of the upcycle artist.

According to Wikipedia, the term "environmental art" is used in a variety of different contexts: it can be used to refer to art describing the natural world, art that celebrates personal engagement with the natural world ("art in nature"), and to the practices of ecological artist, whose work directly addresses environmental issues ("ecological art" or "eco-art")through educating people about the natural world, or intervening in and restoring the natural world. Ecological artist Aviva Rahmani believes that "Ecological Art is an art practice, often in collaboration with scientists, city planners, architects and others, that results in direct intervention in environmental degradation. Often, the artist is the lead agent in that practice.

For Brett one of his favorite mediums to work with is the waste cuts for large steel structural girders used for building high-rise buildings. These large pieces are no longer useful to the construction site and as such are slated for removal to the county landfill. Thankfully, his artistic vision sees the raw art in these girders and he creates and fashions these pieces into amazing art/furniture. He calls the pieces functional art and they are truly unique pieces of both art and furniture.

Another source of material and inspiration for Brett comes from waste that is dumped into local natural habitats. The process of removing or recovering waste materials from natural areas such as watersheds in our lagoons or the undeveloped open spaces of our canyons and ridges is called Rescue. Working with scientists, community leaders and environmental groups, the idea is to locate discarded material in these natural settings and investigate, with the help of experts, on whether or not removing the material will be best for nature. If so, the material is carefully removed and then incorporated into creative designs called environmental art. An example of this type of rescue is a piece of functional art Brett created using a giant concrete core that was discarded in a local watershed. This core was salvaged and after cleaning it up, polishing it to bring out the aggregate’s colors it was sealed to protect the finish. The core was used as weight to counter balance a sofa table to keep his functional art from falling. This inventive combination of rescuing waste materials from local watersheds and upcycling waste material is a gift that helps protect our environment and enriches our lives with beautiful functional art.

Tell us what you think of Brett’s art. Do you know any other artist who create art from waste?

Let us know!

Chad Barker
Chad Barker


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