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Making Art Without Waste

Making Art Without Waste

We all need an occasional reminder to motivate us to treat Mother Earth with dignity and respect. I found my motivation as an artist in converting trash and recycling into art. Hopefully, the pieces I create can inspire, remind, and motivate each of us to do our part.

Recycling is a passion for me. I live and work in a 150-year-old warehouse that has been “recycled” into loft live/work spaces. I walk to my studio, own an EV for other transportation, installed solar at both my home and studio, and use energy-efficient appliances. And I recycle, compost, and pick up litter in my neighborhood. My goal is to be carbon negative and attaining that goal is within reach.

But I am not finished. I want to inspire and motivate others through my art.

Creating Art From Trash

My trash art has developed over time. When beginning my art career, landscapes were a popular subject for me. Often, when I would set up my easel, I’d find that there was litter somewhere in my field of vision. It made me realize that someday our world would be covered with trash.

I decided to try to experiment, exploring ways to find artistic merit in the trash itself. My series “Environmental Reverberations” compares trash with nature. The paintings depict the repetitions of shapes in our environment, the echoes that repeat over and over both in the lushness of the natural subjects and the excess of our waste.

Two watercolors by Cathy Ehrler
Two paintings from Ehrler’s Environmental Reverberations series. Credit: Cathy Ehrler

Next came a series, “Trashy Art on Means Street,” which features 52 works made from the trash that I picked up on the street over the course of a week. After taking a photo of the piece, I either recycled or reused the trash. The photo was the only record of the work.

After working with trash as the medium, I realized I could create permanent and beautiful works from the trash I found.

Bits and Pieces

I was surprised that collectors wanted to purchase the trash-based works I created. Currently, I am creating mosaics made with trash and recyclable materials I collect from my own bins. They are made to be hung permanently.

These mosaics are made from thousands of pieces cut tediously by hand from various trash materials; cartons, cans, old CDs, polystyrene, you name it. They are then glued to a recycled background or substrate. I look for colors and patterns in the garbage. The only products I purchase are nontoxic, environmentally responsible glue and sealer.

Artwork in progress
Ehrler cuts cartons, cans, old CDs, polystyrene, and other trash into tiny pieces to create her mosaics. Credit: Cathy Ehrler

The completed mosaic pieces depict the beauty of nature mostly in florals and landscapes. By taking a closer look, the viewer will see that these works consist of bits and pieces of trash, some from products that are likely familiar. Hopefully doing so will be a reminder and a motivation to recycle.

Tulip "trashwork" mosaic
Ehrler composed this mosaic out of cut-up pieces of trash and recyclable materials. Credit: Cathy Ehrler

Sustainable Art Creation and Collecting

The creative environment is packed with things you can reuse. If you are an artist, look around your studio for existing materials to use in unexpected ways. As an example, I had stacks of completed watercolors and instead of tossing them I cut them up and made a new series of assemblages which were much more exciting than the original watercolors.

Look for materials that are nontoxic and natural. Reuse frames and when packing work for shipments use recycled and bio-based products; they may look scruffy, but they are better for the environment.

If you are an art collector, consider supporting your local artists and urge them to try recycling materials that were used in their creations. And be sure to consider the environment as you build your collection. For example, if the work must be shipped, choose the “slow” way to reduce carbon emissions. You might also ask the artists you collect how they create their work, whether they are mindful of creating waste, or even if they’ve contemplated creating art from waste.

"Trashformation" floral mosaic by Cathy Ehrler
“Trashformation” floral mosaic by Cathy Ehrler

I am consciously working to improve my work and the environment at the same time. Please enjoy the images here and feel free to reach out to me if you are an artist, collector, or just appreciate the work. I hope it makes you smile and consider your relationship with the world we live in.”

All artwork copyright Cathy Ehrler. Feature image: “Trashformation” landscape mosaic by Cathy Ehrler. 

About the Author

Cathy Ehrler is an artist who focuses on creating work that calls attention to the environment and our responsibilities to take care of it. She lives and works in a 150-year-old factory warehouse in Atlanta. You can see more of her work at CathyEhrler.com and on Facebook.

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