From dumpsters to art museums

The Dumpster Divers are currently showcasing trash-picked artwork at the GoggleWorks Center for the Arts.

In the early 1990s, a cluster of artists called themselves the Dumpster Diners. They visited Eva Preston’s Jamaican-American restaurant. They only came for a meal, but left with a new member.

The Diners asked Preston to join their coalition after seeing the artwork adorned on her restaurant’s walls.

Preston remains one of the members of the Philadelphia-based group, which comprises of more than 40 artists who create their works out of materials that would otherwise be thrown away.

Preston, a self-taught artist, prefers not to buy art supplies.

“I would never have to go to the store and buy paper, so all those trees that have been cut down …I’m using that paper,” Preston said.

Many of her collagic works come from old photographs, which she alters by adding in skillfully cut and torn paper. There’s a consistent chronological connection between the different recycled materials in Preston’s works: a photograph from the 1920s, in other words, is decorated with old magazines or comic book pages from the same era.

“It makes the picture more authentic when you use it as a period piece,” Preston said.

Preston and Sara Benowitz, a member of the Divers and an alumna of Temple’s graduate program in education, are showcasing their work along with 22 other divers in, “Upcycling, The Art of the Dumpster Divers” at the GoggleWorks’ Cohen Gallery East in Reading, Pennsylvania.

The mediums of the different members vary, ranging from bodily sculptures of vintage metal crafted by Linda Lou Horn to a piece composed of all the parts of a dysfunctional piano by Carol Cole, to a lamp constructed from an old cigar box by Neil Benson.

Founding member Neil Benson’s famous slogan for the group coincides with its rejection of wastefulness: “Trash is simply a failure of imagination.”

The first members of the group also include Len Davidson, a notorious neon artist in the area, and Isaiah Zagar, the renowned mosaic artist who created Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens along South Street.

As time went on, the founders changed the name of their organization from the Dumpster Diners to the Dumpster Divers.

“They wanted to point out that they were not eating trash,” Benowitz said. She credits the original Dumpster Divers with the feat of helping to save South Street.

Before they started the Dumpster Divers in 1992, the founding artists met in the 1970s. During this time, the possibility existed that the iconic Philadelphian street was to be annihilated and replaced with the controversial Crosstown Expressway.  Artists like Zagar bought real estate properties along South Street and helped to improve its image.

“So, they saved [South Street] and made it into the bohemian art scene it became,” Benowitz said.

Benowitz has been sketching, painting and coloring since her childhood, considering her involvement in art more of a pastime than a profession.

“I had the misunderstanding that to be an artist, you had to be famous enough to have your artwork in a museum,” Benowitz said. “Like you had to be Picasso or Van Gogh, or something like that.”

She progressed through the fields of psychology and education, taking art classes for enjoyment at her undergraduate alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley and a rigorous MFA program at New York University.

Once she started a family in Philadelphia, Benowitz began saving bits of broken items around the house: a fragmented dish, an unwanted CD that had been sent in the mail and a piece of fine china from her wedding with an ever-so-small hairline crack. Benowitz kept the objects alive, well and out of a landfill by painting designs on them and displaying her work around the house.

In 2010, while walking around South Street with her daughter, Benowitz discovered a gallery owned by the Divers. After feeling an instant connection to the “upcycled” works in the gallery, Benowitz approached the Divers and was accepted into the group.

“And so that was wonderful because it allowed me to start taking myself more seriously as an artist, since I was part of an art group of professional artists,” Benowitz said.

Like Benowitz and Preston, many of the Dumpster Divers consider their work “outsider art,” the products of self-taught artists who lack a history of formal artistic education.

Several months after Benowitz joined the Dumpster Divers, the organization’s art gallery on South Street closed. Nevertheless, the organization has been functioning for more than 20 years.

Like many of the Dumpster Divers’ shows, the ongoing exhibition lacks a specific theme other than conveying the differing ideas of the Divers.

“There are so many different artists in the group,” Preston said. “Some make lamps, some make pictures, some make beadwork, some people use fiber, some people weld. … So that’s what makes us all so very different when we put up a show. Everybody has their own niche.”

Angela Gervasi can be reached at

CORRECTION: A version of this story that appeared in print misstated that Joel Spivak originated the quote, “Trash is simply a failure of imagination.” Founding member Neil Benson first said the line. The story also misstated that Dumpster Divers owned the gallery on South Street that Benowitz discovered in 2010. The Divers were permitted to use the gallery.

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