I am always doing that which I cannot do in order that I may learn how to do it...Picasso

Monday, April 19, 2010

Earth Day Revolution

I have a real knack for shopping. I don’t just mean that I can walk into a store and find the real find. I mean I can walk into a place, find what is on sale, identify what is terrific about some pathetic thing that has been passed over for seasons and breathe new life into it. I can spot some oddball object in the junk pile that is the sale table at TJMaxx, pay practically nothing for it and make it become the thing in someone’s home that everyone oooohs and aaaaaahs over. It’s all about time and place and not having a judgement about something coming from the road traveled too long and too far.

Needless to say, I lived a lot of my life sport shopping, accumulating lots of things I love and many more that I absolutely never needed. That all changed very painfully and very abruptly a couple of years ago.

Two things happened in quick succession. First, my husband and I got caught in the real estate collapse right about the time we had decided to downsize. We had bought a smaller house with a barn for me to work in (with one of those crafty little bridge loans Washington Mutual was handing out like coupons in the grocery store) while still in possession of the large trophy home we had been living in for the last 10 years. The upshot of that experience was that we never moved into the more modest house because it was easier to sell (at a very large loss, I might add) and we were on the verge of foreclosure on four (yes, you read that right) mortgages. We were drowning in paper obligations we never had any business taking on in the first place.

The second thing that happened was, sometime before Christmas, I was staring at the wooden sign (that I got at some outrageously low price somewhere) that said Simplify. I had bought it for the fireplace mantel at the other house that I now did not live in, and talking to my girlfriend on the phone. In that conversation she said something to me that changed my life forever. The is not hyperbole. It changed my life forever. Here’s what she said.

We were talking about Christmas shopping and of course I was feeling so sorry for myself because I could do absolutely no shopping that year. There was barely money for groceries so Christmas gifts were sooooooooo out of the question. She told me that she was on the escalator in Macy’s and when she arrived on her floor, she stopped for a moment and looked around. And then it hit her - every single thing in the store, including every single thing that was involved in the construction of the building, everything within her sight, would end up in a landfill somewhere, sometime. I urge you to stop for a moment and just think about that. Every dress, every screw, every floor tile, every shoe, every makeup brush every yard of fabric and carpet every rhinestone every watch…would eventually end up as trash in a landfill somewhere on this planet of ours. I can tell you, my mind was blown forever at this thought.

That is when I decided that I would identify every single place, every single day of my life where I could find a way to reuse something instead of buying more. Luckily, my work was primarily broken pieces mosaics at the time, so I already had a reuse, recycle, reinvent mentality about how I was using my materials. Not only was I using old china but I would purchase the chipped stuff on sale tables and friends were bagging up everything they broke and giving it to me. This way of working caused me to begin seeing things in components. A plate that was not really much to look at but had one beautiful rose right smack dab in the middle of the flattest part of the plate was a find. An otherwise white plate with a beautiful gold border around the edge that would make a perfect border around a house number was a keeper. I was developing an eye for salvage.

When I found myself overcome with the urge to make jewelry I ran to Michael’s to stock up on materials. As I stood looking at all the findings, beads, pendants, wire, I was struck by two things. One, these materials were not going to express the vision I had in my head of what this jewelry of mine was going to look like and two, what I saw, more than the materials themselves was all of the packaging. Every single thing came with cellophane, cardboard, staples, tape, wire - all manner of packing materials that would end up in the garbage before I even made my first necklace. The image of the Arthur Kills landfill flashed before me and I no longer had a feel for my new jewelry line.

I was cleaning out a drawer one day and there were several pieces of junk jewelry, you know, those impulse buys from Target or H&M that you wore once and then wondered why on earth you bought it to begin with. I also came across some old grandma pieces that I would never wear but felt terrible tossing out (more landfill pictures). I stared and opened myself up to the possibility in these tidbits. And then I began to see components. If I disassembled the jewelry, there would be clasps, jump rings, beads, chains - all the things I had walked away from at Michael’s were staring me right in the face! I could make the jewelry I was envisioning by disassembling old useless pieces and recomposing them in a new and creative way. Suddenly, everything I laid my eyes on became potential material for all of my work.

I don’t see garbage anymore. Everything I see has the potential to be reinvented. New is what you turn to when you need something really specific and you don’t have time to wait for it to fall into your lap. But now, for me, there is no such thing as junk jewelry. Those box lids of grandma’s crappy leftovers at garage sales are now a box full of supplies for my work. A friend cleaning out her drawers is now an opportunity for me to invite myself over to pick through her garbage before the trash guys get there. My friends are getting used to it too. Just last night, I was with a friend and were taking pictures of our kids who were off to their Junior Prom and she told me she had a bag of old jewelry to give me. My friend who moves a lot because of her husband’s job always has a box of breakage to ship to me once she has unpacked and settled into a new home.

What I know is that, we on this planet have enough. Some of us have too much and some not enough but there is enough stuff for everyone. We as artists can create a revolution now. We can explore the esthetic of recycling and reimagine what is beautiful. We have a power and a responsibility, as artists, to see the world through different more thoughtful eyes. Let’s make our contribution to our planet this earth day by pledging to develop new eyes. Let’s see the treasure not the trash.


  1. You're inspiring me to get to that basement of mine! Next rainy day with energy...and I'll send you all the stuff I think you can use.

    But what about red mary jane clogs? Can I still buy them if I ever find them??

  2. Beautiful. As always, you are so inspiring. Thanks Neely.