I have a very close relationship with buttons. You could call it button love. When I was a kid visiting my grandmother’s house I discovered her button box. Inside, the buttons were like little gems — mother-of-pearl and fabric covered ones that matched the dresses they came off of. Shiny gold buttons that looked like they could be from an army uniform – and maybe they were. I felt rich as I plunged my hands into the box and let the buttons slip through my fingers. I strung them together to make necklaces or divided them into piles and used them as game pieces with my sister. I didn’t know it then but I was a creative reuser.
It was no surprise to anyone who knew me that after graduating from college with a degree in Arts Education and stints in the film and fashion businesses I wound up at NYC’s premiere government funded Creative Reuse Center, Materials for the Arts where all materials are free to member organizations.
What is Materials for the Arts?
Materials for the Arts is housed in a 35,000 square foot facility located in Long Island City, Queens, New York. Similar to Costco in layout and filled with all types of reusable materials donated by local businesses and individuals, membership is available to New York City- based nonprofits with ongoing arts programming, public schools and city agencies. On any given day you can find household items, set pieces, furniture, paint, hardware items, Plexiglas and frames. What people don’t need, can no longer use or just want to get rid of they can donate instead of dumping.
Educating the Art Educators to Use Reused Art Materials
When I first arrived in 1998, public school art teachers were just getting access to Materials for the Arts. I kept hearing – “Where are the water colors, where is the Tempera paint?” As a former art teacher, I knew that for these teachers to really benefit from these non-traditional materials, we would need to start training them — we needed to educate the educators.
Sixteen years later we are proud to say that we are the largest provider of all types of materials to the New York City public schools. Now teachers come and say they feel like kids in a candy store.
We have taught teachers to appreciate and recognize the unique learning experience that occurs when their students use non-traditional materials. For example, 2nd grade students at PS 209 in Whitestone, Queens were studying urban, suburban and rural communities.
Under the leadership of our artists-in-residence, they were able to create mosaics out of CD cases and decorate them with all sorts of found objects. They learned math as they used a grid to divide up their original drawings. They learned how to work independently as they crafted their own CD case and how to work collaboratively once all of the cases were completed.
Why Donations Are So Important
Due to decreased budgets, teachers generally cannot afford the types of materials used in our workshops and stocked on our warehouse floor. Donors — businesses and individuals, help to ensure that students and teachers from all over have equal access to a rich variety of materials for use in their classrooms and after school programs.
How to Solve the Global Resource Problem?
Whether you know it or not, you are probably a creative reuser. Now you need to become a creative donor! Allow others to take your excess, overstock or no longer needed items and repurp
ose and reuse them in hundreds of creative ways.
What’s in it for you? Well, donating frees up costly real estate, keeps valuable items from going into the landfill, and you can get a tax write-off. Most importantly, your donations establish connections with the people who are taking your items and reusing them, and that helps build community.
A Number of Years Ago, I Was Introduced to A Master Reuser, El Anatsui
El Anatsui is a contemporary African artist. His work includes reusing labels, corks and bottle tops. He refashions these materials into shimmering wall hangings resembling fabric. El has said that one of the wonderful things about working with these materials is that they carry the DNA of the person who handled them, owned them or used them before.
When you donate your items for reuse instead of dumping or discarding them, you are handing off a part of yourself to the artist, student or teacher who will put their own stamp on them. Your DNA passed on to their DNA. It is the life cycle of creativity.
You Can Be a Creative Reuser, Too
You are surrounded in your home or office or workplace with literally tons of materials that can be repurposed or refashioned or reused. You have the power to be the traffic cop and redirect these items – put them in the dump or put them into the hands of people who can use them. The choice is yours. The planet is calling. Join the conversation. #CreativeReuse
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I loved your story about how the public school art teachers were only looking for the traditional art supplies when they first visited the Materials for the Arts. What a great learning opportunity for them in that they had to be creative and really rethink what they were accustomed to. Allowing the students and teachers to use their creativity in two ways – both in the repurposing aspect and in the artistic application – probably taught them more about expressing themselves through art than any traditional process would!
I enjoyed reading the passage about a time when a school brought math, art, and sustainability together. What a wonderful idea that project was! It is always inspiring to hear about people who took what they no longer needed, turned it into a useful, new product, and also learned something along the way. As you explain, resources – physical and financial – are scarce and reusing rather than wasting is definitely a great way to help the economy and environment.
Thanks for your comment. If more teachers are exposed to a wide variety of materials and encouraged to utilize them in their lesson planning, our students will begin to take those lessons home and reuse the materials around them. Cereal boxes become architectural building blocks!
What a lovely initiative!
As I was reading, I was reminded of a gem of fiction, which I’ll share as long as we’re on the subject of contemporary art. Just know that, although this book could never be adapted into a film in a way that would give it justice, given its unique, psychological and literary brilliance, if one were to come out some day, I highly doubt it would be rated PG. (I only mention this because the audience here might be seeking out affordable art for children or young adolescents.)
The genius book I refer to is Jennifer Egan’s A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD. It came to mind because this article reminded me of a hobby of Sasha’s that we find out about in one of the chapters towards the end of the book. Perhaps you could find a sliver of irony in this hobby and her history in relation to this post.
Regardless, there’s a reason it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006, and I just couldn’t help but mention it.
What a great solution to so many concerns. My mother is a mathematics and art teacher for a public middle school, and loves intertwining the two in ways such as what you described! It’s such a fun way to get younger generations interested in reducing, reusing, and recycling – as long as there is clear emphasis on reusing and repurposing materials, rather than using perfectly functioning items as materials (e.g. using old plastic bags that may have been piling up in your closet, rather than going to the grocery store to find new and unused plastic bags, to make a plastic bag jump rope). For anyone who may be interested, I have seen a lot of recycled art project ideas popping up on Pinterest too!
Thanks for sharing Materials for the Arts! I like the examples you shared about using non-traditional materials to create art. This is a great idea because it allows students to create art beyond the usual traditional media and allow students to feel more connected with sustainability. This can inspire students who may not feel necessarily “artistic” in fine art such as painting or drawing, and allow them to be creative in other means.
What a great idea that not only pushes the creative boundaries of exploring art in schools but also provides businesses with a productive way of getting rid of materials they no longer need. I have heard of many art programs in public schools receiving decreased funding or being removed entirely from curriculums due to budget constraints. This initiative can help many art programs continue to thrive.
LOVE this! I am a theatre major and so much of what we do is DIYs using materials we find on the side of the road that people no longer need.