American art of conspicuous recycling

American art of conspicuous recycling

Gomez, Aurelia

Trash, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.”

Michael Thompson, Rubbish Theory.

What makes one person’s trash another’s treasure? This question is answered repeatedly by artists who create objects out of recycled materials. Collections of buttons, bottle caps, wires, brushes, beads, and less readily identifiable refuse spring to life when reconfigured by the hands of spirited artisans. Their work articulates personal passions and cultural identities while repositioning value systems. Objects of intense beauty and meaning that are created out of throwaways make ironic statements about how we order our world and what we hold dear. This Instructional Resource looks at the work of several recycling traditions from the United States.


Through adaptation of this material, students will learn that:

1. Industrial and commercial discards have a strong impact in the United States.

2. There is a cultural basis for the transformation of junk.

3. Creativity and ingenuity can be found in the reuse of discarded materials by artisans in the United States.


“If l seem to be over-interested in junk, it is because Iam, and I have a lot of it too…half a garage full of bits and broken pieces…I guess the truth is that I simply like junk.”

John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley.

In the United States, people have been recycling for years, not necessarily from a heightened awareness of the global waste problem, but because of personal needs to express themselves, out of necessity, or due to a sense of thrift. Reusing what one had on hand and “making do” has been part of U.S. history since the pioneer days. There was, however a slow shift from home-based resourcefulness to consumer convenience around the turn of the 20th century. Disposable items became more appealing to the public, and businesses took advantage of the profitability of consumable items. A shift in thinking took place beginning with the automated assembly line of Henry Ford and other industrialists of the day. People who lived in the United States came to expect that the flow of goods would be affordable and endless. As prices became more affordable for these mass-produced items, consumers began to favor the consumable products over those that could be reused.

Folk artists throughout U.S. history have looked for ways to be resourceful and reuse the junk found in their environments. Whether it be for thrift, for conspicuous bold display, or for creative expressions of personal identity, we find ways that people have ingeniously refashioned “junk” or discards into works of beauty, meaning, and utility.


Memory Jar

Maker unknown, United States. Early 20th century. Glass jar covered with composition dough embedded with metal, plastic, glass and wood objects, gilt with gold paint H 8 1/4 x Diam 5 1/2 (21 x 14 cm) . International Folk Art Foundation Collection, Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe, NM. Photograph by John Bigelow Taylor.

Junk carries with it the suggestion of other lives and memories associated with its prior use, whether real or imagined. Gifts or whimsies were intended to decorate the home and serve as conversation pieces and as affectionate reminders of the gift-giver. Now they evoke a certain nostalgia for by-gone days and pre-industrial ways, though the materials employed are factory made. “Memory vessels” from the late Victorian era are compelling decorative objects that serve as three-dimensional scrapbooks for their makers.

Memory vessels are also called what-not jars, ugly jugs, mourning jugs, forget-me-not jugs, spirit jars and whimsy jugs. Exact details of the origin of the vessels are unknown, but as their aliases contest, they are part of a tradition of commemoration. Placed on graves, or created as a memorial in honor of a specific person, these jugs use recycled materials to tell family histories. The process of creating a memory vessel is simple. A container is covered with an adhesive such as putty, cement or plaster. While the adhesive is wet, objects are applied to the form. Seashells, glass shards, buttons, jewelry, tools, beads, coins, and toys encrust the surface, often making the original vessel non-functional.

Questions for Discussion

1. Why did this tradition of creating memory vessels come about?

2. Does creating a memory vessel for someone out of things that would normally be thrown away demean that person? Why or why not?

3. What other ways do we have of commemorating people?



1. Students will learn how people in the United States have created memory vessels in honor of a person to create a decoration for their home (historical and cultural understanding).

2. Students will learn how artisans have created memory vessels using recycled or cast off materials (perceiving and analyzing).

3. Students will create their own memory vessels (creating and performing).

Project Ideas

1. Think about a person (dead or alive) to commemorate. It could be a family member, an imaginary character, or a person in the community. What qualities does this person exemplify? What tools does he or she utilize? Assemble a collection of small objects that embody or symbolize important aspects of the person. Find a vessel or a box and cover it with a thick layer of putty. Push the collected objects into the putty so that they cover the object or box. Let it dry and paint it.

2. Create a memory vessel (see #1) for an entire group of people such as a club or classroom, neighborhood or community. How does this process differ from making a vessel about just one person?


1. Create a display of the memory vessels with labels describing the people for whom they were created and the materials that were used.

2. Write short stories or poems that describe the memory vessels or the people they were made to honor. Read them aloud in class or at an assembly.


Overall Quilt

Patchwork by Arbie Williams, quilted by Rose R McDowell, Oakland, California, 1992. Scrap fabric, overalls. Approx 5′ x 5′ (55cm x 55cm). International Folk Art Foundation Collection, Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe, NM. Photograph by John Bigelow Taylor.

During the two World Wars and the Great Depression, many U.S. housewives had little choice but to be resourceful and use scrap fabric to make handmade clothing and bedding for their families. Women talented in needlework carried out the tradition of making pieced quilts. These quilts served not only a utilitarian function, but also often resulted in works of stunning design and beauty. Quilts that recycle scraps of fabric have become known today as the quintessential U.S. folk art. We see great variety in the quilting materials and designs that result. Sometimes quilters play with the idea of incorporating industrially produced items into the design. The use of old silk neckties, cornmeal or tobacco sacks, bank coin bags, men’s overalls and blue jeans pockets all speak to the quilter’s abilities to challenge necessity with wit and ingenuity.

Arbie Williams is one such quiltmaker who has continued the art of quiltmaking that she learned as a child. Born in 1916, Arbie was raised on West Texas ranches where her father worked as a hired hand. Her talented mother taught Arbie how to quilt when she was 8 years old.

Arbie came of age during the Great Depression, when making quilts from recycled clothing was a necessity. She pieced warm and practical “britches quilts” from usable parts of worn-out pants, overalls, and other sturdy garments. As a cotton picker, Arbie knew that the fronts of her family’s britches would wear out long before the backs, which could then be cut up and re-used for some other purpose. Arbie’s britches quilts reveal her willingness to experiment and improvise. She now makes ingenious and intentional use of the bold shapes that result when used clothes-raw material for her art-are disassembled and then pieced together so that the entire backside of britches-or pockets are still boldly displayed.

Copyright National Art Education Association May 1999

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