From Trash to Art. It is estimated that 46% of U.S. households are Amazon prime members. I’m one of them. Before I became a member, my Amazon purchases were limited to books, electronic and physical, knock on wood, ones. Now I forego shopping for whatever I can purchase at Amazon, from Rishi tea to brown rice syrup. I just finished an unfinished console that I ordered on a Tuesday and that arrived two days later, on Friday. Free shipping of course, and that’s one of the reasons why I appreciate the prime membership. But there’s a downside to the convenience: packaging. And lots of it.

  Last year, I had more than my fair share of cardboard boxes in the recycling bin. My daughter-in-law, who works for Philadelphia’s Dept. of Streets & Sanitation picking up trash and recycling, commented on the noticeable presence of shipping packaging on her route. She collects recycling in an area of town where, she believes, people order everything online, including groceries. Amazon packaging, however, dominates the pickup. Her comments and the general reading that I do about our environmental woes started me to thinking about how I could recycle the cardboard; so I began experimenting.

  I started off by getting myself a large tub of gesso to cover the layers of cardboard for what would become a frame, and the canvas on which I would create a mixed media piece.  I’d allow it to try and then begin thinking about ideas. The piece on the left is about the Vietnam War and the use of agent orange, and on the right is experimenting with colored paper, paint, beads and sequins. I allowed these to sit while I gave the whole project some thought. A theme or some guiding idea best serve my approach to creating. So I laid aside the piece on the right and began giving more thought to creating pieces that raised some issues, like the one on the left.

  I remembered some time ago creating a meme about Philadelphia’s 15,000 homeless people, mostly women and children, through Shane Claiborne, a new monastic who serves in North Philadelphia: “Philadelphia has more than 20,000 abandoned houses. There are more abandoned houses than there are homeless people. And yet there are thousands of families waiting for affordable housing.”  So I thought I would create collages of row houses, that characterize many Philadelphia neighborhoods, and add a text of the depressing statistics that Claiborne calls attention to. At least this is where I am focused at now. In many ways, it’s an expansion of my current art practice and a slight shift in direction.

  There are many artist who create art from trash, stuff that would normally liter the street or lie in recycling buckets on curbs awaiting pick-up.  I recently discovered Ghanian artist El Anatsui who creates large scale tapestries of bottle caps, hand stitched together with copper wire to create what appears to be metallic African fabric, resembling Kente cloth. Some of his assemblages are made from aluminum cans that he retrieves from recycling stations. Anatsui’s works call attention to the relationship among the environment, waste and consumerism. Awarded an honorary degree from Harvard University in 2016, Anatsui has exhibited his work around the world, and has been awarded for his influence on West African artists.

Close up of ”Between Earth and Heaven.” 2006, El Anatsui
“Between Heaven and Earth,” 2006. El Anatsui

  Street Shrines and Memorials. Many of us are familiar with the spontaneous sidewalk shrines that were erected all over the world for Michael Jackson and Prince, but few of us are aware of the street shrines erected to memorialize crime victims. The latest is the shrine erected for Nabra Hassanen who was slain as she and her friends were walking to a mosque for Ramadan prayers. Her memorial was set on fire on June 21, 2017. An arrest was made. Lloyd Wolf whose blog you can find at http://dcshrines.blogspot.com/2017/ has been documenting these street shrines since 2008.

This is a shrine erected in Munich to mark the death of Michael Jackson
This fence memorial is the creation of fans and admirers at Paisley Park, home of Prince Rogers Nelson: Prince

  Spontaneous road-side shrines are said to predate cars. They were intended, and maybe still are, to mark the exact place where the soul begins its journey back home (https://sylvaansuz.wordpress.com/2009/12/11/roadside-shrines-and-walmart-grave-goods/). I began noticing roadside shrines on a trip to the Grand Canyon, Arizona. On the Navajo reservation, one can observe these road shrines that indicate where fatal car accidents have occurred.

  In Arizona, many of the roadside shrines/memorials were removed by the Arizona Department of Transportation who cited that the memorials were a road safety hazard. As a result of the protests over the removal and destruction of the memorials, ADOT has changed the laws governing the memorials: https://azdot.gov/about/transportation-safety/roadside-memorials.

  Of late, these shrines are being erected in African-American communities for African Americans who have fallen victims to police violence and brutality. You can read more about these shrines and street memorials in Lloyd Wolf’s blog.

Non-Commissioned, Clandestine, Often Illegal

  Guerilla Gardening: Ron Finney, known as a guerilla gardener, began gardening in vacant lots and spaces in South Central L.A. Finney told a TEDx audience that he was tired of leaving his community, saturated with fast food restaurants and dialysis clinics, to buy an organic apple: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EzZzZ_qpZ4w. In the U.K., it was Richard Reynolds who made guerilla gardening popular by advocating the cultivating of places where one doesn’t have permission!

  Guerilla gardeners fight against abandoned spaces, hunger and the lack of access to quality food in poor communities. They do it with shovels, seeds, and sweat.

Seed bombing kits can be purchased online.
Illegal plant bombing

  Yarn Bombing. Because of its popularity, yarn bombing now has its own official day. June 11, 2017 is U.S. Yarn Bombing Day. So if you’re a crocheter or knitter and interested in yarn bombing, get your hooks and needles ready and mark your calendar for next year. A yarn bomb can be dropped anyplace, on a pole, an existing statue, a car, a bus, a bike, or most often, a tree.

Tree Yarn Bombing
This bomb was dropped by South Wales based yarn guerrilla-ists Woolly Welsh Wo/Men.

Street Sculpture. There is a street art that is moving beyond graffiti, and the artists are creating sculptures in places formerly unthought of, like this corner of an eroding concrete wall. These Lego bricks were placed in the corner of an eroding building during the night, as the building is on private property. Illegal street art.

  Friend and fellow artist Amy Orr, Philadelphia, Pa., is the creator of “Street Totems.” Orr uses a diverse mixture of objects and sculpts them on wire, erecting masterful and fun totems on poles, like this one, above, on Walnut Street, on the University of Pennsylvania campus. She has placed totems on street poles as far as Jerusalem and Ensenada, Mexico.

  However we do it, we have to change how we live on this planet, and the change has to be of our creation. Sculptures from trash, a response to refuse destined for landfills and oceans, spontaneous memorials and street shrines that commemorate loved ones and victims, guerilla gardening and yarn bombing without legal permits are all creations that speak to the transformation in consciousness.

There are roughly 15,000 homeless people in Philadelphia, mostly women and children. In the same city, here are 20,000 abandoned houses. Akilah t’Zuberi, May, 2017