Artists Create Treasure from Trash

by Sura Wood

If you’re an artist looking for hard-to-come-by studio space in San Francisco, want access to bountiful resources and have a knack for converting refuse into art, the Artist in Residence Program at Recology San Francisco offers an intriguing opportunity.

If you’re an artist looking for hard-to-come-by studio space in San Francisco, want access to bountiful
resources and have a knack for converting refuse into art, the Artist in Residence Program at Recology San Francisco offers an intriguing opportunity.

Each year, from over 100 applications, the Recology SF AIR Program selects nine Bay Area artists to set up shop in an on-site studio and scavenge through massive piles of discarded materials at the Public Disposal and Recycling Area (better known as the public dump), its 47-acre facility in the southern part of the city. Since its inception in 1990, 150 professional and student artists have participated in the program, which includes a four-month residency and a stipend, and culminates with a three-day public exhibition.

“The residency was a transformative experience that forever changed my art practice,” says Jamil Hellu, one of the 22 artists whose works are now on view as
part of a retrospective at SF Camerawork that focuses exclusively on photography and video-based art from the program. “I come from a traditional background in photography but the residence challenged me to think out of the box. A lot of what I produced there relates to the economic system we live in. There’s so much waste and we are talking about just one city in the United States.” For one of his pieces in the show, “Splattered, An Act of Covering Someone with Paint” (2014), Hellu staged a performance at which invitees threw vast quantities of recycled paint (from Recology’s Household Hazardous Waste Facility) on him. A digital print documenting the experience shows the artist in coveralls standing in front of an empty backdrop he thought of as a blank canvas; he’s facing away from the camera, streaked from head to toe in a blizzard of pink and blue splatter reminiscent of a Jackson Pollock drip painting. The piece, Hellu says, “is a metaphor for what is feels like to be an artist working at the city’s dump: a messy, chaotic place full of possibilities.” (See cover image.)

Other artists incorporated reactions to their immediate surroundings. Kristin Cammermeyer’s time-lapse, stop-motion animation video, “DOUBLE HOW: in & out of the Back Room” (2013), chronicles the construction and destruction of the complex immersive installation she assembled in her studio, played at warp speed. Artist Chris Sollars plundered Recology’s abundance to build environments and film sets for imaginary worlds and characters. With found objects and garments, he outfitted fantasy figures such as an interstellar explorer ensconced in an elaborate silver space suit and a Japanese warrior/superhero figure decked out in bright red, full-body armor and matching helmet; both are captured in photographs here. For his “BLU—SCUBA-BLU” (2015), Sollars donned a blue wet suit and fins and dove into a recycling bin. The underwater adventure in which he “swims” through a sea of blue plastic, a reference to ocean pollution, was recorded in a whimsical short video accompanied by burbling sounds. The video is viewed by peering down into a blue bucket through a pair of goggles.

Kristin Cammermeyer, still from “DOUBLE HOW: in & out of the Back Room,” 2013, stop motion animation, 4:03 loop

Prior to his arrival at Recology, David Hevel was combining taxidermy animals, fake flowers and cheap jewelry for kitschy portraits of celebrities; during his 2009 residency, he began making costumed creatures with Styrofoam heads and the trio of surreal “Magic Garden” sculptures, several inches in size, that are displayed like tchotchkes in a gift shop. The miniature amalgams of melted foam insulation, plastic flowers, pom poms, fake fur, appliqué and bubble wrap suffused in a heavy dose of Pepto-Bismol™ pink are the antithesis of organic and a wry comment on hedonistic consumer excess. They’re accompanied by a creepy time-lapse video of the assemblages in which the fantastic, candy-colored shapes bloom, shrink and wilt at an accelerated rate, morphing like rogue alien life forms after Hevel heated them with a blow torch.

Matthew Gottschalk, who had previously made marionettes in his own likeness, carved a new puppet inspired by Carl Sagan, Joseph Campbell and universal myths. “I wanted to veer away from my own image and find a character that could be a stand-in for me as the protagonist in the hero’s journey,” Gottschalk recalls. While digging through a large box at Recology, he discovered a stack of discarded VHS sleeves from Sagan’s original Cosmos series. “I was captivated by the man as a scientist, but even more as a beacon of wonderment and exploration,” he says. “He became the hunter that could navigate the terrain of Recology.” The artist fashioned his Sagan puppet out of basswood, paint, a welding rod, curtains and t-shirt fabric and filmed his creation’s explorations of the Recology “cosmos” in a video titled “From the Belly of the Whale” (2014). In a site-specific work for this show, Gottschalk expanded on the theme, shooting a four-minute video that follows the marionette “Carl,” barefoot and carrying a spade, as he makes his way from Recology to the Civic Center area. He ambles along Market Street with a distinctive gait, turning his head this way and that to view the busy urban environs around him, though passersby don’t give the spectacle a second look—this is San Francisco, after all. The sojourn ends when “Carl” enters the red doorway leading to the gallery where visitors will find him seated on a platform beneath the video monitor, taking it all in, like a good cosmologist should. “Recology was, by far, one of the best creative experiences I’ve had as an artist,” notes Gottschalk. “I got lucky.”

At the end of their residencies, artists contribute three pieces to the program’s permanent collection; some are then exhibited at venues such as the SFO Museum, Intersection for the Arts and the Napa Valley Museum. The current Recology residency exhibition, featuring the work of Ramekon O’Arwisters, Anja Ulfeldt and Jinmei Chi, is at the facility’s art studios January 20, 21 & 24. A free shuttle ferries passengers between Recology and SF Camerawork from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, January 21.

Photography and Video Retrospective
of the Recology® Artist in Residence Program

Through Jan. 28

SF Camerawork

1011 Market St., 2nd floor, San Francisco 487-1011


503 Tunnel Ave., San Francisco 330-1415