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From trash to treasure: Artists turn discarded items into sought-after art

Juliet Ames' jewelry made from broken plates
Juliet Ames' jewelry made from broken plates - Atomic Cheesecake Studios
Juliet Ames hasn’t met an ugly old plate she didn’t like. Her love for them turned into a business when decided to turn a pile of plate shards into a pendant seven years ago.
The owner of the Broken Plate Pendant Co. now markets her colorful, irregular-shaped rings, necklaces, bracelets and other jewelry at craft fairs. Rachael Ray has even worn a Broken Plate necklace on her cooking show "30 Minute Meals." Ames, who lives in North Baltimore, also designs custom pieces for weddings, anniversaries and gifts for families who want to find a new use for grandma’s beloved china. 
“Everyone’s got lots of stories about their plates,” Ames says. And the odd shapes only adds to the jewelry’s appeal. “People like to know that it’s a plate shard because it’s a conversation piece.”
Ames is one of many artists and designers who are creating viable new businesses by turning discarded items into fashionable new products. The creative reuse economy has exploded in recent years, with more and more artists using upcycled objects in their work. There are more than 300,000 items tagged “upcycled” on Etsy compared with just 10,000 a few years ago.

From Sarasota Architectural Salvage, a warehouse that makes art out of iron door knockers, to a Minneapolis artist--Alan Wadzinski--who makes sculptures out of junk, creative reuse artists are springing up everywhere. Artists say they are inspired by the challenge of breathing new life into old objects.
“Bringing in objects that have their own history adds a bit of dimension to the piece,” says Catonsville artist Angelique Weger She recycles objects into everything from keys to books to make mixed-media collages.
Nicole McGee is a Cleveland artist who makes jewelry, bouquets of flowers and artwork out of scraps of vinyl flooring, plastic bottles, corks and other things people throw away.

“There’s a creative reuse movement that’s growing in Rust Belt cities,” says McGee, 33, who lives in the Cleveland EcoVillage on the near west side of the city. Her business, which is appropriately called Plenty Underfoot, is inspired by the idea that there is more than enough stuff lying underneath our feet to create the goods we need in our lives.

“The idea of reducing consumption is one I feel strongly about,” she says. “Because of our history of making things here, places like Cleveland are friendly to this industry.”
McGee has created a successful business out of her love of upcycling the city’s debris. She has made centerpieces for restaurant chains in Cleveland, offered workshops to teach would-be crafters how to reuse ordinary stuff, and taught crafting to school kids.

Now she is opening a creative reuse center in Cleveland. In partnership with a nonprofit, she recently snagged a $375,000 grant from ArtPlace, a group of national arts funders that provide funding for creative placemaking projects. She will launch Urban Upcycle to sell crafting materials as well as artists’ wares in long-empty storefronts that populate the St. Clair Superior neighborhood two miles east of downtown.

Plans include workshops to help residents learn the art and economy of creative reuse, an incubator to help businesses get started, and an online marketplace for reuse artists.

"We'll be revitalizing the downtown strip of this neighborhood in ways that create new learning and skills in residents who live here," says McGee. "We’ll be inviting them in."

Warehouses for the Raw Stuff of Creativity

Creative reuse centers are shops or warehouses where you can buy materials in bulk that would otherwise wind up in the landfill. Geared toward artists, teachers, parents, and crafters seeking raw materials, they have been growing quickly across the U.S. They’re treasure troves of creative possibilities for anyone with an artistic mindset.  

These reuse centers can be described as traditional craft stores crossed with a funky garage sale that your artistic next-door-neighbor helps curate. They’re stuffed with rolls of yarn, reams of paper, stacks of vinyl tile samples, bins of colorful slides, and other items that, once transformed, could become the next public art masterpiece.

Moreover, these reuse centers are creating green-collar jobs, reducing waste, educating people about how to live a simpler, more creative lifestyle, and giving artists a place to buy supplies. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure, enriching all of us.

“It used to be just the poor, starving artist stereotype of taking found materials and dumpster diving out of necessity,” says MaryEllen Etienne, Executive Director of the Reuse Alliance, a national group based in Dayton, Ohio. “We see that still, but there’s more thought in it. They’re trying to have an impact by showing that these things can still be beautiful and have meaning rather than just sitting and wasting in a landfill.”
There are now 42 creative reuse centers across the U.S. The largest ones, like SCRAP in Portland, Oregon, employ as many as 20 people and have developed a strong base of funding. To grow the movement, organizations like the Reuse Alliance are offering trainings and conferences to help more people open creative reuse centers in cities.

Although every creative reuse center operates differently, what they have in common is a nonprofit mission to repurpose donated materials into creative projects, thus helping the environment. That might mean selling rolls of yarn to crafters, offering donated art supplies to artists, or selling activity kits to teachers hungry for hands-on art projects.

Resource Area for Teaching (RAFT) in Denver, Colorado, part of a national organization with centers in Sacramento and San Jose, focuses exclusively on educators, whether they’re teaching artists, after-school program mentors or regular classroom teachers. Teachers come to RAFT to find funky, affordable art supplies for their classrooms.  

“We support teachers’ efforts to do more project-based, hands-on learning by giving them the resources to do that,” says Stephanie Welsh, Executive Director of RAFT Colorado. “Sitting there passively is not how kids learn, and we understand that.”

Despite rock-bottom prices – new supplies are priced at 80 percent off retail while used supplies are priced at 90 percent off – RAFT earns 30-40 percent of its annual revenue from sales at its store. The remainder is raised from foundations and private individuals. So far this year, RAFT Colorado has repurposed 19,000 cubic feet of donated materials.

Other organizations are, well, scrappier. For instance, SCRAP DC, which just launched three years ago, stored its materials in volunteers’ sunrooms, closets and garages for the first year, bringing the “gospel of creative reuse” to the city’s residents through mobile workshops, according to Heather Bouley, one of the group’s founders.

Yet SCRAP DC is about to move into a new, 2,400 square foot space that will be open four days per week. In addition to continuing its creative reuse workshops throughout the city, SCRAP will lease space to artists and offer a shared gallery for exhibitions. “People are excited about it,” says Bouley. “We are the only reuse center in D.C.”

The Scrappy Creative Reuse Economy Grows Up

Although each of these creative reuse centers has its own story of humble beginnings, another common narrative is now emerging. As the reuse movement expands, so too does the customer base for raw materials and finished artistic products. With growth trending upwards, these centers are running larger, more sophisticated operations.

Although time will only tell where the creative reuse movement is headed, the Reuse Alliance is spearheading an effort to launch a national creative reuse association, creating a national network and raising the profile of this budding economy.  

“There’s a huge economic impact out there,” says the Alliance's Etienne. “Some reuse centers have just a few employees and some have 20 employees. These are all green-collar jobs – people making a living while doing something that’s beneficial for the environment.”

Etienne points out that not only is reuse good for the environment, but it keeps money circulating locally, with a positive effect on businesses and communities.

In fact, we might view upcycled items as the ultimate “value-added” products. These centers and artisans are transforming what was once deemed worthless into high-value items, salvaging materials that would cost money to throw away and turning a profit. That’s perhaps the creative reuse economy’s lesson: the treasure is indeed underfoot.

Lee Chilcote, a Cleveland-based journalist, is Editorial Director of Issue Media Group and Development News editor at our sister publication Fresh Water Cleveland. 

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