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Garbage is the new black
Jepson and S.P.A.C.E. exhibit art and fashion made from recycled materials
San Francisco artist Karrie Hovey installs a blooming vine of reclaimed books, a visual commentary on Twitter and other forms of modern communication. - photo by Jessica Leigh Lebos

THE BOTTOM of your trash bin ain't a pretty place.

Yet for a growing number of artist and designers, the detritus that lies within is a source of creative inspiration. It’s a phenomenon that documents and critiques our alarmingly wasteful culture, and making something beautiful and/or functional out of the empty containers, plastic bags and other ubiquitous waste of the 21st century imbues a piece a work with meaning before it’s even begun.

In the last decade, garbage has found a stronghold in the fine art pantheon and figures prominently in two exhibits around Savannah this month: Karrie Hovey’s glorious “...the Garden Grows: Inside and Out” at the Jepson Center and the S.P.A.C.E. gallery’s breathtakingly diverse “Upcycle: Functional Art from Recyclables” both dazzle and provoke by finding beauty in the stuff we throw away.

Inside the austere white foyer of the Jepson atrium, San Francisco Bay Area-based artist Karrie Hovey has constructed a floral Eden from the dregs of the dump. Vivid purple hydrangeas, graceful calla lilies and red poppies sprouting from the window boxes were once discarded sheets of packing foam and old Christmas displays. A full-sized tree branch made from yellowed newspapers reaches out from the wall. Further up the grand staircase, verdant vines composed of twisted plastic bags cascade from the ceiling, crowned at the top by a flowering tree of old books, their pages lovingly arranged to resemble petals.

Look closer, and you’ll see the brand names: Williams Sonoma. Subway. Nordstrom’s.

“I dumpster dove most of it from the shopping mall,” she shrugs with a smile, pointing out a fringe of fuchsia raffia that came from an out-of-season Kate Spade handbag cut in half and thrown away. (Many retailers have a policy of destroying unsold merchandise so that it can’t be resold.)

Intrigued by “the impact of global trade, patterns of consumer culture and the aftermath of our consumption,” it’s no accident that Hovey used commercial refuse to simulate an unspoiled natural world. It’s an intentional and beautiful way to highlight our obscene use of resources and endless manufacturing, and Hovey—who spent several months in residency at San Francisco’s revolutionary waste management plant Recology—believes that more and more rubbish will find its way into art.

“A lot of artists are expressing their concerns about the environment,” she muses. “I think there’s an urgency now.”

There’s also the endless supply of raw matter.

“Art materials are expensive,” notes Hovey, whose trash-sourced sculptures have been installed in China, the Netherlands and South Africa. “Garbage is free!”

On display through August 17, “...the Garden Grows” exemplifies what may be a cultural shift in how we view consumption.

“More and more people are questioning the way we live,” says Telfair senior curator Harry DeLorme, who worked closely with Hovey on the installation. “We have a lot to learn. In other places, they don’t waste anything.”

It’s an idea that’s paramount in his mind as well: In his down time, DeLorme also creates original art out of materials that wash up on the banks of the Savannah River. Several of his practical pieces, including a clock made from plastic oil jugs and a lamp made from 125 lighters found on the McQueen’s Island nature trail, are included in another exhibit showing at the City of Savannah’s S.P.A.C.E. gallery through April 25. (A reception will be held on Friday, April 4, as part of the First Friday Art March.)

In fact, every item curated for “Upcycle: Functional Art from Recyclables” has created new possibilities from forsaken things: From Carolyn J. Ingram’s purses made out of men’s ties to Lind Hollingsworth’s coffee filter bowls to Jessica Key’s necklaces beaded from old magazines, the potential found in our cast-offs and recycling bins clearly knows no limits.

“This is the second time we’ve hosted an ‘upcycle’ show for April, and we’d like it to be a regular exhibit every spring,” says Dept. of Cultural Affairs Arts Programs Director Debra Zumstein.

“There are just so many ways that an artist can find a thing and modify it into something amazing.”

The concept extends into wearables as well. Several dresses from Savannah Arts Academy’s annual Junk 2 Funk fashion show are on display, along with accessories by Linette Dubois and Angela Burson, who deconstructed men’s suits from Goodwill for their smart tweed messenger bags and pocketbooks.

“It’s very satisfying to rescue the good parts of what was once a well-made jacket and make a whole other garment,” says Burson. She adds with a laugh, “There’s also a history—we found five Viagra in one of the pockets!”

Such connections illustrate how recycled materials can transform us from anonymous consumers into conscious beings sharing the same planet and resources. If garbage is the downfall of humanity, it may well also be its redemption.

“When people see this show, they’re shocked at what can be done with what they throw away,” says Zumstein.

“Then they think, ‘what can I do with what I already have?’” cs

San Francisco artist Karrie Hovey installs a blooming vine of reclaimed books, a visual commentary on Twitter and other forms of modern communication.Using shredded yoga mats and packing materials she found in the dumpster, Hovey has created an unspoiled natural world to mirror the beauty in Telfair A diverse collection of functional clocks, jewelry and fashion is on display at S.P.A.C.E. gallery's "Upcycle" show through April 25. Square.

Upcycle: Functional Art from Recyclables Reception

When: 6-9 p.m., Fri. April 4

Where: S.P.A.C.E. Gallery, 9 W. Henry

Cost: Free


Garbage to Gardens Family Day

When: 1-4 p.m., Sat., April 5

Where: Jepson Center, 207 W. York St.

Cost: Free

Info: (912) 790-8800 or

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