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Repurposing objects into art

Living Green

A three-panel screen created with recycled reversed coil fire hose by Christine Lee is pictured. (Journal photo courtesy of Christine Lee)

MARQUETTE — Objects can take a variety of paths when they are discarded. They may be taken to a thrift store, brought to a landfill or recycled. They can also be diverted from these paths and repurposed to create works of art.

Christine Lee, an assistant professor of wood/sustainability at Arizona State University’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and a senior sustainability scholar at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, spoke at a Northern Climate Network Climate at Noon presentation at Northern Michigan University Friday, sharing her process for creating three-dimensional works that largely consist of recycled, reused and repurposed materials.

Lee found inspiration in “objects that people kind of gave up on or didn’t really care much about” and tended to find “mundane or ordinary” objects full of potential in her work, she said.

“At my core, the way I work with materials, I’m always going to be trying to find a way to keep things around, so that before we quickly judge to throw something away, (ask) ‘What can I do, how can I salvage that?'” Lee said.

Lee spoke about a variety of processes she’s developed to salvage different materials over the years, ranging from fire hoses coiled into pathways and panels; to thousands of wooden shims reconstructed into complex forms; to cast-off wood pieces and sawdust transformed into large, Lincoln Log-like beams; to functional, versatile seating created almost entirely out of items found in a San Francisco transfer station.

From each of these processes, Lee took away a new understanding of materials and design, she said.

During a residency at a San Francisco transfer station, Lee saw many objects on their way to the dump that were still full of life — and challenged herself to find a use for them.

“There’s these amazing objects that someone used and really cared about; and they’re just going to go into the landfill,” Lee said. “It was really heartbreaking.”

Lee created several modular benches out of materials found there by repurposing leftover concrete from city construction projects, pouring it into molds made of recycled materials from the dump and painstakingly collecting hundreds of boards for the lower portions of the benches.

“This was an experiment in almost as complete utilization of everything from the dump,” Lee said, noting that everything that went into the benches was from the dump, with the exception of casters, which needed to be purchased new for safety reasons.

Another experiment led Lee to make a “complete use of scrap lumber,” during a “pivotal residency,” at the University of Wisconsin Madison where she used scrap lumber — and a new material comprised of the sawdust it generated — to construct a suspended sculpture comprised of large “modified Lincoln Log pieces,” she said.

Lee started with using scrap material from a local mill to construct some of the first logs. Then, through a partnership with composites research engineer John Hunt, an innovative use was found for the sawdust generated by the creation of the “modified Lincoln Logs.”

Hunt and Lee had developed a technique to create boards out of the sawdust without using formaldehyde, which is typically used in similar materials, such as particleboard and medium-density fiberboard.

This was particularly exciting, Lee said, as they found some of their boards were actually stronger than some of the formaldehyde-containing particleboard and medium-density fiberboard. A provisional patent was applied for and Lee made further “modified Lincoln Logs” out of the material.

In the end, Lee created a “suspended sculpture” for an area children’s museum with “modified Lincoln Logs” made of both the solid wood she started with and the material made with sawdust generated by the creation of the solid wood logs.

“I got really excited about this project; not only because of the technology that could potentially come from it but also the idea that it really is possible to think consciously about your artwork,” Lee said.

While Lee initially wasn’t vocal with others about her perspective on minimizing waste while creating art, she eventually came to see that it was important to share her process and thoughts with others and use her art as a unique platform to spread awareness.

“I realized I should really be more vocal about what I do,” Lee said. “Because if I’m able to consider that and still make work that is art or design, why not just have it as an example of an alternative way of approaching your materials and your design, so that people realize that it’s not that difficult to do; you just have to get used to it.”

Lee reminds fellow artists and designers to look at the items around themselves and remember: “everything that you have actually has potential.”

“I really think that the role of the artist and designer is not just about just decorating things at the end,” Lee said. “It’s about asking questions together and bringing that perspective in as a way of considering these problems.”