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Up-cycling from trash to treasure

Rene Chen, a sophomore in materials science and engineering, makes an intriguing lamp out of jagged jar bottoms as she "up-cycles" trash into art.
Rene Chen, a sophomore in materials science and engineering, makes an intriguing lamp out of jagged jar bottoms as she "up-cycles" trash into art.
Photo / Donna Coveney

"Junkyard Art," a two-week adventure in "up-cycling," gave participants a new perspective on trash along with a chance to transform discarded objects into flights of artful fancy. Thus, a recycling bin's worth of glass-bottle bottoms became a lamp shade, an old clock became a tasteful mobile a la Joseph Cornell, and a collapsed doll carriage, circuit boards and some papier mache became Cinderella's sedan.

Erik Demaine, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science; artist Jeff Smith; Justin Adams, assistant officer of Environment, Health and Safety; and Martin Demaine, visiting scientist in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab organized the course.

Martin Demaine described the group's work with discarded objects as "beyond recycling."

"We wanted the work to have some kind of environmental impact. Things we found were not only recycled; they were up-cycled into art," Demaine said.

The Plaster Studio itself had an up-cycled look, with "found supplies" stashed in piles and works in progress on every surface. The course goal--to see "junk" differently--feels like a change of eyeglasses. Once your vision adjusts, every bit of wire, every computer fragment, has potential.

"This was a course to discover how to be creative with re-use of materials," said Adams, whose day job at MIT focuses on recycling and sustainability. Last year, the Demaines and Adams collaborated on an installation titled "Building with Books," in which they and others created an entire bedroom with books and discarded telephone directories.

Adam's up-cycled work yielded a waist-high wooden pedestal that displays a motorized three-speed classroom globe. All three ON-switches, taken from an electric fan, make the globe spin giddily and the pedestal shimmy. (Another artist used the fan's safety grill as a lamp shade.)

"Junkyard Art" launched with a talk by Smith, a Boston-based artist working in three dimensions with recycled materials and in two dimensions with video. He produces furniture-scale sculptural forms, many with engines, and mordant "safety videos" titled "Safety and You," "Food Safety and You," etc. He is founder of the Take an Artist to Lunch Foundation.

"Recycling means inventing new processes, and I enjoyed helping people to be inventive. There's a big difference between art and craft. I told them, 'don't worry so much about the craft,' and they took off," Smith said.

Smith will officially conclude "Junkyard Art" with a lecture at which the up-cycled art will be exhibited--Feb. 15 at 5:30 p.m. in the Stata Center.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 26, 2005 (download PDF).

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