Dumpster Divers say goodbye to South Street

A South Philly art gallery celebrated a successful six months of selling art made from recycled materials and remains optimistic as artists continue to spread sustainability.

A South Philly art gallery celebrated a successful six months of selling art made from recycled materials and remains optimistic as artists continue to spread sustainability.

LAUREN MACALUSO TTN Scrap metal, computer chips, newspaper and magazine clippings adorn the former gallery. The Dumpster Divers packed up their collections and now wait for what comes next.

If you’ve taken a stroll down South Street during the last few months, you may have noticed a new art gallery. For the last six months, the space at 734-736 South St. was occupied by Dumpster Divers, a group of 22 artists who — you guessed it — literally dive into trash to gather the materials from which they create their own masterpieces.

On Jan. 17, Dumpster Divers hosted a party to celebrate the end of the collective’s time on South Street and the 26,000 customers who played a part in their short-lived success. The space will soon be occupied by Community Living Room, which according to its Web site, will provide sofas, televisions and Internet access to be “your home away from home.”

One of the divers, Alden Cole, said the group was able to rent the space on South Street because the unoccupied areas made the street appear “run-down.” When Howard Lander, one of the local landlords, offered the space to the divers, they jumped at the opportunity to be a part of an area known for its appreciation of art.

“There are a total of six [spaces] scattered pretty much east of here on South Street,” Cole said. “They’ve all been inhabited and have been rented. And we are the last ones.”

For the past 40 years artists like Isaiah Zagar have transformed old buildings and empty lots in South Philly into areas of possibility and beauty. In light of that, businesses like the Big Green Earth Store and the Dumpster Divers’ gallery have been successful in selling the oh-so-popular “green” idea to South Street.

“It’s in the winds, the whole idea of green and recycling, rather than just making it new all the time,” Cole said. “It’s definitely a major trend. It’s got to happen. Hopefully it’s not just the buzz word for now. It has to go beyond that.”

The Dumpster Divers were able to gain popularity and make a living because of the environmentally conscious idea to reuse and recycle. Their artwork may represent a trend, but it also proves that extraordinary things can be created from what others deem as trash. Originally called the Dumpster Diners, the group started out meeting around plates of food to swap techniques, found objects and personal diving tricks.

“It was a lunch club, but they were all pretty much ‘dumpster’ people.” Cole said. “They had all ‘diven’ into dumpsters to retrieve stuff at one point, so they became the Dumpster Divers.”

Inside the gallery, materials you could find anywhere became art. Diver Jamie Campbell designs jewelry from discarded LPs, newspaper and magazine clippings, while Ellen Benson uses computer chips and bingo markers. Tim Congo, another diver, turned his hobby of decorating model trains and trolleys into Tim’s Miniature Transit. Congo remodels replicas with custom features like real cloth seating and carpeting.

David Gerbstadt is the most recent artist to join the Dumpster Divers. He may be new to the group, but Gerbstadt has been selling and sharing his artwork in Philadelphia for years, making frequent sales during First Friday in Old City and dropping his artwork randomly around town. He was featured in the documentary David was Here, a film that follows the people who collected the 3,000 pieces of artwork that he left throughout Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco, Mexico and Poland.

Toward the back of the gallery are photographs of the Dumpster Divers — 10, 15, 20 years ago. Some of the divers who are in every photo were also in attendance at the closing party. Their spirits were high at the thought of what the future might hold for each of them as artists.

“Each one of us will take our things back to our studio or home and wait until the next opportunity comes along,” Cole said.

With the confidence of a true artist, Gerbstadt simply added, “whatever happens, happens.”

Lauren Macalso can be reached at lauren.macaluso@temple.edu.

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