When it comes to recycled art, the old saying “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” couldn’t be more true. From plastic spoons and bottles to aluminum cans, broken watches, and hubcaps, upcycled materials have found a permanent home in the art box, with serious artists making and selling incredible, 3-D sculptures and paintings.
The concept of recycling dates to the 19th century, when pioneering Americans reused items out of necessity. Fabric scraps became crazy quilts, scrap lumber was transformed into weather vanes, torn fabric turned into rag rugs. Americans also have a long and unique history of saving and reusing specific objects, like rubber bands, tin foil, and wrapping paper.
The concept of using recycled materials in art dates to the days of Pablo Picasso, one of the first upcycling artists. Picasso’s Bull’s Head is made simply of a single bicycle seat and set of handlebars, yet perfectly depicts his subject. Dadaist Marcel Duchamp managed to sculpt a sea creature using a urinal and snow shovel. Alexander Calder made animals from coffee cans and John Chamberlain sculpted using used auto parts, a favorite material of upcycling artists.
As environmental concerns crept onto the global scene, some artists began to see using recycled materials as a responsibility, rather than simply an artistic challenge, reusing items that would otherwise make their way to the trash heap. Plastic – in any form – is a particularly popular material among upcycling artists.
Today, recycled art takes many forms – sculpture, paintings, baskets, clothing, jewelry, furniture, you name it. Like non-recycled art, some pieces are created solely for their beauty or to make a specific statement, while others are functional, working pieces.
Your students can create their own upcycled art pieces. First, help them become aware of the things they discard or recycle in a single day or week, noting objects that have the potential to become useful or interesting art materials. Then, using literally any old shoe (think high heels, tennis shoes, sandals, boots, baby shoes), students will select a theme and choose and apply found objects to transform their trash into true treasures.
Click for the complete Redo, Reuse, Retread lesson plan, including step-by-step directions, a material list, and an image of the finished project.
For Grades K-12.