The Wellesley dump, or the Recycling & Disposal Facility (RDF) as it is officially known, is one of my favorite places in town. It also happens to be one of my favorite places to take my artists. Sure, I love visiting the many renowned and cutting-edge museums and gallery spaces around town, but the dump is a truly wonderful place that inspires as much awe as it does questions and concerns. I bring the artists in my Drawing and Painting I class there every year for a project that examines ideas of consumption, waste, materials and resources. By this time, the students have already exercised their seeing and rendering skills in still life drawings of simple geometric forms, and this project has them put those technical skills to use with the additional element of an idea or concept driving the art.
I begin by showing a PBS NewsHour short profile of artist Vic Muniz’s documentary Wasteland. Muniz travels to his native country Brazil and explores the lives of “pickers” — workers who earn a living by searching through the garbage in landfills for recyclable materials. He poses the questions “can art change people?” and “how can art change people?” We follow this video short by discussing those questions but also examining how the material, in this case trash, is transformed into the art. We then take a field trip to the reusables area at the Wellesley RDF, where students select an object that will be included in a larger still life to be rendered in charcoal.
Before the actual drawing begins, students open up their sketchbooks and reflect on the life of their selected object. What materials and resources were used in the production of this object? Where was it produced? How was it acquired? What was its history of use? And finally, how did it end up at the reusables area in the dump? I want students to think about the life of this object. They get to know the object further by sketching it in their sketchbooks. In the end, they will have a charcoal drawing of disparate objects whose only connection may be the location that they were found, but hopefully along the way, they will gain a new perspective on their role as not only consumers but as artists with the power to transform material and lives.