Artists create works of art from San Francisco trash

On the southern outskirts of San Francisco, directly across from the Bayshore Caltrain stop, is Recology’s Transfer Station, the last stop for The City’s garbage before making its way to a landfill.

Inside the station, the two most noticeable things are the sheer size of the garbage pile in the middle of the warehouse –– nearly reaching the ceiling of the three-story building, and stretching from one end to the other –– and the stench, a combination of moldy, wet clothes and rotting food.

Twice a day, Curtis Reid Henderson, a student at the San Francisco Art Institute, leaves the confines of his metal shipping container turned makeshift studio to scavenge the giant pile. He pushes his shopping cart across the parking lot into the warehouse in search of something usable, something that he can turn into a piece of art.

Henderson said:

“When I was a little kid, people would ask me what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I’d say I wanted to be either an artist or a garbageman. …  So this is perfect.”

After a quick stroll through the warehouse, past the line of trucks dumping everything from construction debris, bottles and cans, computers, television sets, what looked like the entire inside of a Chinese restaurant, and anything else that seems no further use to anyone, Henderson finds something he can use: a 1970s Super 8 projector. Not exactly the perfect piece he was looking for, but something he said could be disassembled and used for parts.

Along with Cathy Lu and Erik Scollon, Henderson is one of three artists in residence with Recology who will present their work in a group show at the San Francisco Transfer Center.  All the artwork on display will be made from materials found by the artists at the dump.

Henderson said:

“Unlike working with new materials, materials from the dump that have their own baggage that they can bring into a piece. …  Like a piece of wood covered in bird shit, it still has value.”

The artists, one student and two professionals, were handpicked from over 120 applicants. Each pitched an idea of what they will do with their time at Recology, then answered a series of questions with a 10-person panel of artists, environmentalists, and Recology staff.

The artists are each given their own studio space at the dump, and the two professional artists also receive a $1,200 a month stipend.

When the residency is over, the artists’ work can be found at the Artist in Resident offices, and at Recology’s sculpture garden. One of Henderson’s pieces, a working boombox made from a discarded cooler and a car stereo, is an homage to the sculptural work of Tom Sachs. Another is nicknamed the 1,000-Year Tape Player, in which he will replace all the plastic parts with metal ones and use solar panels instead of a wall plug for power.

Lu teaches ceramics around the Bay Area, and is calling her part of the show “Real Imitation,” what she says is a look into Chinese art and culture.  Some of her pieces are in the vein of coil pottery, but instead of using clay, she is using long ethernet cables to create her version of Chinese vases modeled after designs from the Ming dynasty era.

Lu said:

“I like to think of it as a mix of a museum, a warehouse, and a trinket store. …  And all the ways we interact with Chinese objects and how each have value but compressed into one piece.”

Scollon, whose part of the show is called “Bring Your Body with You,” teaches at the California College of the Arts. He is focusing on works that refashion everyday items from unusual materials; one is a woven rope made from 27 cassette tapes that’s nearly as strong as a nylon cord.

He is also creating giant, deep blue, balloon-like rectangles made of hundreds of deconstructed jackets left at the dump by a San Francisco based door-to-door valet service.

Scollon said:

“I ended up walking 1.2 miles back and forth from one side of my studio to the other to make the rope out of the 27 cassette tapes. …  I wanted to bring people into the art and look for materials that have a seductive quality to them.”

The Artist In Residence program started in 1990 with one artist working for a whole year as a way to promote recycling, conservation, and local artists.  Founded by Jo Hanson – a San Francisco artist and activist who died in 2007 – the year-long program now has three four-month cycles featuring two professional and one student artist, all based in the Bay Area. 

Back in the shipping container, Henderson, whose show is called “Punitive Damage” looks over his newly found materials, deciding how he can use them in any of his pieces. He said this part of the process is the most challenging: trying to see value in things that others find disposable.

Henderson said:

“It was overwhelming in the beginning to see how much waste there actually was. …  Statistics get thrown around all the time on how much trash there is, but until you see this and you realize that it’s just a tiny fraction of the waste that this relatively small city produces, it really puts everything in perspective,””

The art will be on view at the transfer center this Friday, Saturday and Tuesday.