By Brooke Phillips
Artists often use their work as a platform to comment on society’s larger issues. Today, several artists in the U.S. embrace the concept of upcycling, using everyday objects that are often thrown away after their initial use for another purpose. Through mixed media and assemblage work, found object artwork adds to the conversation surrounding the complex issue of environmentalism.
The Western world’s fascination with found object art is relatively recent. The movement only caught on in Europe and the U.S. within the last hundred years.
“So, making work with found objects became present in Western art around cubism in the early 1900s and particularly with Picasso who was looking at African objects for inspiration,” said Kaitlyn Allen, former curatorial assistant at the Asheville Art Museum. “The work produced was not about imitating other cultures, it arrived from looking at non-western art and seeing that objects were created from everyday items and also materials that came from nature.”
The movement developed throughout the twentieth century, inspiring the work of artists from Marcel Duchamp to Andy Warhol.
“Today, we view found object art as embedded into our art history. It is a part of the deconstruction of art,” Allen said.
Frances Domingues is a found object artist and owner of FD Found Design Studio and Gallery based in the River Arts District of Asheville, North Carolina. She made the coffee table in her by wedging industrial thread spools between two large pieces of glass.
Domingues found her passion for art after her middle school art club denied her entry because of her inability to draw a bowl with fruit in it. According to the club’s members, this meant she could not be an artist. Fast forward a few decades and you’ll find Domingues working non-stop at her craft. These days, instead of drawing fruit bowls, she makes art and furniture out of recycled materials.
“It’s about looking at things differently. And especially in what I do, it’s ‘OK, this object was something else in its former life but what can it be now?’” Domingues said.
Her studio boasts natural light that falls upon the room’s array of artwork and seems fitting with Domingues’ mission. Not alone in her vision, creating a work of beauty from formerly used materials seems to be gaining popularity in the art world.
A friend and colleague of Domingues, Kehren Barbour is also inspired by the idea of repurposing. Barbour earned undergraduate degrees in installation art and printmaking. She spent a few years in San Francisco working in theater, specifically set design and production management, before moving to Western North Carolina to attend graduate school at Appalachian State University.
“Sustainable development is ethics, economy, and environmentalism,” Barbour said. “You consider all those factors and you come out with something that is in theory sustainable, and then in planning and practice, you hope [is also] sustainable.”
Barbour combines her passion for environmental consciousness with her artistic side. Her latest adventure, The Post Piano Project, reflects her dual visions. The project takes abandoned pianos, distressing and disassembling them, and makes them into new works of art.
Barbour became interested in art at around seven years old. After a couple of years of math lessons, she asked her parents to get her painting lessons instead. From there, art would become an integral part of her identity.
Ronald Robertson, mixed media and assemblage artist, enjoys the puzzle repurposing presents. Cellar Door, housed at the Asheville Art Museum, resulted from objects his family brought to inspire him.
“My children and my wife, they’re always collecting junk for me to use as a reference for painting, for the texture and the look of different things, so that I can translate it into a painting,” Robertson said. “[My children] brought in some things one day, the plywood piece that’s a major piece in the assemblage and my wife brought in some junk. I was fiddling around with it and made an assemblage out of it.”
And thus, Cellar Door was born.
“It was the first assemblage I made back in the ’60s. That was the beginning of my assemblage career, really. That started it,” Robertson said.
Robertson named the piece in honor of his favorite author, Mark Twain. Twain’s two favorite words were “cellar” and “door” because of the way the words sound.
According to Robertson, the message artists send through the creation of found object art relies on the individual artist’s ability to render that message clear.
“It all depends on how it’s composed and how it’s organized, how it’s communicated,” Robertson said.
Barbour agrees that art’s role as communicator depends on its capacity to make us think about the larger issues at stake.
“Art is engagement. You are calling people into this space of listening or observing or thinking about materials differently,” Barbour said.
Artists are not alone in their expectation that art serves a purpose in sustainability. The impact of upcycling can create waves of change, according to Amber Weaver, LEED Green associate and sustainability officer for the City of Asheville. LEED stands for leadership in energy and environmental design. LEED Green associates are knowledgeable of current green building principles and practices and are able to apply these skills professionally.
“I think art can be a very impactful way to message the need for humans to participate in environmental change,” Weaver said.
Weaver serves the city through implementing projects to make Asheville greener. Policies range from municipal waste reduction to ensuring healthy soils to sequester carbon. One of the city’s largest goals is to reduce carbon by 80% by the year 2050.
“All of the work that we do in sustainability really goes back to upholding that goal and trying to achieve it,” Weaver said.
Artists can generate the conversation, but it is up to the public to initiate environmental change.
“Now more than ever, [the public], has a really important role of understanding climate change and what they can do,” Weaver said. “I think a lot of people just figure, ‘I’m just one individual. How much change can I make?’ but collectively, we make a great deal of change together.”