YOUNTVILLE — How can someone persuade others to waste less and reuse more? One can lay out the facts and figures of conservation – or show, face to face, how inventively artists can turn trash into treasure.
This winter, the Napa Valley Museum is taking the second path.
“Trashed and Treasured,” an exhibit that opened last month in Yountville, is showcasing the work of a 26-year partnership between the Recology waste management firm and a host of artists. From raw materials gathered at Recology’s trash collection center in San Francisco, artists in residence craft works as diverse as typewriter-ribbon black dresses, mid-20th-century Modernist living room sets of scrap wood, and likenesses of a Disneyesque princess or Beatrice from Dante’s “Divine Comedy” – all meant to creatively call attention to the torrents of refuse generated in people’s daily lives.
The myriad ways of reshaping throwaways – and the nearly pristine condition of what people discard – can be the most eloquent message for conservation, according to Meagan Doud, curator of the Yountville museum.
“People would be surprised at what’s thrown away,” she said while the gallery was empty around noon Sunday. “A lot of the artists can’t believe the new-looking things that get thrown away, things that are still useful.”
“It’s not about beating people over the head asking ‘Why aren’t you recycling?’ It’s asking what else you can do with trash that could be useful, reimagining what your trash could be.”
Despite the weekend’s scarcity of visitors shortly after the holiday break, Doud said the recycled-art exhibit, which debuted Dec. 12 and remains on view through March 27, has attracted more committed visitors than many other showings in the Yountville gallery. “We get people staying for much longer – an hour, an hour and a half at a time – and getting engaged with the displays and the wall didactics,” she said.
“Trashed and Treasured” may mark the Recology art collection’s first appearance in Napa County, but the program has produced numerous works from more than 150 partners since its 1990 founding, according to curator Sharon Spain.
Each year, the company sponsors two artists in residence, who are invited to collect materials from the waste transfer center in San Francisco. An on-site studio provides the space for assembling art pieces and exhibiting them to visitors, and selected works are shown around the Bay Area at six to 10 exhibits annually.
“The underlying reason for this program is educational, to teach people about reuse and recycling and resource conservation,” said Spain. “We do a lot of tours for elementary-school children and the general public, so they have an opportunity to meet the artists and reflect on their own consumption patterns. This is an innovative way to get people to think about reuse.”
Messages embedded in the artworks can range from the polemical to the historic to the simply playful. At the Napa Valley Museum, Stephanie Syjuco’s replicas of 1950s living room furniture by the designers Charles and Ray Eames – but pieced from surplus lumber, old tarps, foam and duct tape – intended to point at economic inequality, shared floor space with the strangely soothing revolving motion of yellow sailcloth “petals” within A Spring Rain, a 2013 creation by Benjamin Cowden that Doud slowly cranked with the handle of a repurposed meat grinder.
Elsewhere in the gallery, a set of pale white embossings in quaint-looking cursive script were more than what they seemed at a passing glance. The creations by Julia Anne Goodman, made from rag-based paper, were in fact an homage to the lowly, anonymous women who combed the San Francisco landfill for fabric scraps to use for papermaking before the mid-1960s.
The chance to bring to light not only buried treasure but such long-forgotten stories is one way such artworks can touch the heart as well as the brain, said Spain, the Recology curator.
“Art has a way of reaching people that is unique,” she said. “It’s very different than just reading about something, because it creates an emotional response. It can be more profound.”