The folks at Recycled Artists-in-Residency take the idea that “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” to a completely different level.
Recycled Artists-in-Residency, or RAIR Philly, aims to provide artists with access to recycled materials through Revolution Recovery, a Philadelphia recycling services company.
“The mission is to create awareness about the waste stream through art and design,” Fern Gookin, RAIR co-founder, said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”
Gookin became involved with Revolution Recovery when she was getting her master’s degree in sustainable design at Philadelphia University and was interested in doing her thesis on an artist program in the facility. Artists had come to the company looking for material before, but unfortunately those who worked for Revolution Recovery didn’t have enough time to properly supply them.
Gookin was then introduced to co-founder and artist Billy Dufala, who had come to the site before in search of materials.
“Instead of just writing a thesis,” Gookin said.
“We put it into practice,” Dufala added.
Dufala’s office is somewhat of a trophy mantle of his most prized finds from the recycled material. Odd trinkets adorn his windowsill; a stack of recovered records towers on his desk; and newspapers with headlines reading “Kennedy shot to death” and “Oswald Shot to Death” have a safe home in his drawer.
“They’re all time capsules, in some regard,” Dufala said of his finds.
RAIR’s studios are the end of a methodized process of receiving and recycling. Material is collected by specific Revolution Recovery dumpsters at job sites or by contractors or anyone who comes by to drop it off.
Once emptied outside, the material is pushed to one side of the property and fed through a belt that leads to workers who hand sort it by type, including aluminum, rubber, cardboard and dry wall.
Although Dufala’s office is somewhat separate from these notably dustier parts, he strolled through the plant greeting workers with a friendly confidence that would make one think otherwise.
Dufala speaks highly of Revolution Recovery and its team, praising their efforts to become closer to a zero percent waste facility.
“All they see is they want to do more,” Dufala said.
The materials gathered here have the potential to become the medium for artists who sift through the piles — an act that could be dangerous and certainly daunting if not approached with care.
“I can’t stress enough how much it’s safety first,” Dufala said.
When it comes to diving into the trash, Dufala was quick to admit his initial hesitance.
“You need to build up the courage,” Dufala said. “You need someone to hold your hand, because it’s f—ing terrifying to do it.”
However intimidating, Gookin said artists find value in taking the time to acquire recycled mediums.
“Artists seem to like working with these materials because they have this intrinsic value,” Gookin said. “They have this history to them no matter if it’s like a two by four that came off of another job site or a newspaper article from 50 years ago. No matter what it is, it [has] had this life to it.”
Aside from historical value, recycled material is an often overlooked but cost-efficient resource for artists.
“We’re really changing the way that artists think about sourcing material,” Gookin said. “The stuff is all around you. You just have to look.”
Dufala’s experience in the arts has given him firsthand knowledge of the amount of material that is disposed of by artists.
“As an artist, I know how wasteful artists can be,” Dufala said. “I’ve done some work in the theater. I know that set building and things like that are incredibly wasteful.”
Dufala, however, prides himself on a different mindset.
“Say I tear down a wall in my studio,” Dufala said. “I’m trying to get all that drywall off and say, ‘Who needs this drywall? Is anybody fitting out a studio space?’ I’ve done that before, and that’s kind of like my [method of operation]. That’s how I operate. If I have something that’s valuable to someone else and I know they can use it, I’m trying to facilitate to them.”
“It’s easy to throw it away,” Dufala added. “It’s a little more work to find it a new home.”
The extra work can often spawn something magnificent, Dufala said. He recalled a particular project that was on display this past July through August by Abigail DeVille. DeVille constructed a torqued ellipse based upon Richard Serra’s 1998 piece. The piece was entirely created from recycled materials through RAIR. Even without a full-time staff, Dufala and Gookin boast a long list of artists that have been provided material through RAIR.
“It just shows you the potential that it has,” Gookin said.
In addition to providing artists access to materials, RAIR also hopes to educate the community about where trash goes once it’s disposed of.
“The thing I would hope is to make people a little more in tune with what it is that they use and what it is that they discard,” Dufala said.
That common, detached way of thinking is something both Dufala and Gookin would like to change.
“A lot of people don’t think about what happens to trash once it leaves the site,” Gookin said. “When you put your trash out on the curb, or you put it into a dumpster, no one ever thinks about where that goes, really. It’s just sort of, ‘Out of sight, out of mind, it’s gone.’ But to actually see where it goes and what happens to it really opens your eyes to the issue of waste and that there’s so much of it and it’s something that we have to deal with. Just getting people to think of the volume of waste and the consequences.”
Dufala said he believes seeing the trash for oneself is a worthwhile education.
“You come up here, and you’re immediately getting educated on what is happening on the back end of that industry,” Dufala said. “You see dumpsters in the cities, the trash cans, the waste management — but you don’t really see what happens to it afterward. For me, I want to throw the creative process into this mix and see what happens.”
Dufala, who teaches a course in found objects at his alma mater Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts, is a former member of the experimental Philadelphia band Man Man.
Dufala’s creative tendencies combined with Gookin’s experience in the sustainability community make him confident of RAIR’s success.
“With her ties to the sustainability community and my ties to the art community, when this does happen, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be broadcast far and wide,” Dufala said.
Although RAIR has been active for two years, Dufala and Gookin found it fitting to wait to fundraise until some footing had been established and a specific goal had been placed. Now with a clear vision, the co-founders felt ready to fundraise, having launched their Kickstarter fundraiser on Nov. 4.
As of Nov. 26, $13,940 of its $15,000 goal has been pledged. Rewards for pledging vary from a tour of the studio to Sanborn maps from the 1920s to a dinner prepared by Dufala’s brother Blaise, a food sculptor.
With the money they raise, they hope to start an application process for artists who are interested in sourcing materials through RAIR.
“I feel like we’re scratching the surface,” Dufala said. “I feel like this is kind of the tip of the iceberg. I would hope that there’s a whole lot more to dig into in time.”
Jenelle Janci can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.