Eco Art

Bay Area artists create sustainable beauty

Mary Bayard White, "Eagles Mere Lake, Sullivan County Memories," 2010, made with recycled window glass

Photograph by Lee Fatheree

Humans are born with the capacity to create beauty through creativity. We also have the ability to affect environmental change through small steps. Meet five Bay Area artists who have combined those two skills to make inspiring, eco-friendly art.

New Life for Wood

Two San Jose woodworkers have taken the eco-friendly activity of bicycling a step further by making bicycles out of “urban wood”—wood from trees that have been felled by landscaping or utility companies, or knocked down during big storms.

“Urban wood, although it’s new wood, hasn’t had a life other than as a tree yet,” says woodworker and bike builder William Holloway. “Most urban wood ends up as mulch or in the landfill.”

Holloway and his friend Mauro Hernandez began building beach cruisers out of urban wood in their Masterworks Wood and Design shop one day when business was slow. Although Holloway had previous experience working with wood, Hernandez did not. Before meeting Holloway, Hernandez says, “I had never picked up a hammer. I didn’t know the difference between a chisel and a mallet,” he said.

Each wooden bike is made by hand, without the aid of any machinery, and takes about 85 hours to complete. So far, the pair have made 10 bikes in seven different styles. Their first bike was coined “The Defender” because few people believed they could make a bike from wood. The bike Hernandez built for himself, named “The Interceptor,” is a tribute to his favorite football team, the Raiders. The pirate-themed bike has a pirate skull with crossed sabers in the center frame and a skull gearshift.

Some of the bikes also utilize recycled wood, including a pile of grape stakes found alongside the road by Holloway.

Tin Woman

Harriete Estel Berman has been working with recycled materials, particularly tin, since 1981. “When I first started, it was really embarrassing to work with recycled materials,” she says. “I was taking something that somebody would throw away and I was using that as my raw material. That was a really radical concept at the time.”

Berman’s decision to use recycled materials was in line with her life’s credo of consuming less and reusing more. Berman uses the colors, patterns, and images printed on tin cans to send a message about ideas that matter to her, such as overconsumption.

“All of this work is essentially about how we create an identity for ourselves in our consumer society by what we buy and why we buy it,” Berman says.

Berman’s work includes a series of 200 teacups made of recycled tin, which function as a commentary on our consumer society. She also makes recycled tin jewelry, with a prevailing motif being the UPC code.

The media’s portrayal of women is another theme that Berman explores through her art. “One topic that I address is how women are used to sell products,” she says. Berman has created mirrors and vanity seats bearing messages like “Make me over,” “Botox my wrinkles,” and “Masque my imperfections.”

Glass Houses

Mary Bayard White, an artist and art educator at The Crucible, a nonprofit arts education center in West Oakland, began working with recycled glass in 1969. “I was really interested in making drinking containers—glasses that would show the beauty and the wonder of water,” she says.

White re-melted unwanted glass collected from factories on the East Coast and transformed it into tableware. She wanted her art to be objects that people could touch and use rather than just look at.

Over the years, her art has taken the concept of using recycled materials to another level. Her work includes a series of glass houses made out of recycled window glass and scrap steel, which function as lighting fixtures. She says these pieces serve to remind us that human construction and “man-made” items are part of a larger force, that of nature.

“We’re an integral part of a much larger world. We have a choice in our lives of controlling nature or living in relationship [with it]. We’re part of a cycle that includes the natural environment, the manmade environment, and other creatures in the world,” White says.

White has also created a series of solar-powered birdbaths for a nonprofit environmental organization based in New Mexico. The birdbath installations help people visualize how they can provide fresh water spaces for wild birds in an urban environment. The baths are made out of recycled glass and have solar power pumps that run when the sun is out.

Through her art, White hopes to convey the message of using less virgin materials. “It’s a goal to think about how to use what we have… which helps bring about some kind of harmony with nature.”

Painting With Paper

Fifteen years ago, Lori Krein gathered a bunch of leftover paper from her home—wrapping paper, tissue paper, and scrap paper—and stuck it in a blender. She took the pulp and dried it on screens in the sun. After taking a collage class in Santa Cruz, she figured out what she could do with that recycled paper pulp. “Once I took that class, I was hooked on using paper as my medium,” Krein says.

Krein’s collages are made only with paper, unlike traditional collages, which utilize pictures from magazines and other mediums. “I call it painting with paper,” she says.

Having never gone to art school, Krein says that paper is a very forgiving medium that allows her to express herself artistically without requiring technical skills.

“With paper, you can tear it or cut it and it’s more about the texture of the paper and the color than it is about trying to draw something,” she says.

Making art with recycled and sustainable paper aligns with Krein’s lifestyle. “I am very conscientious about the earth. I shop exclusively at thrift stores for my clothes, and yard sales or flea markets for just about everything,” she says. “I think it’s better for the environment to buy something that’s not brand new.”

Beach Plastic

Artists Judith Selby Lang and Richard Lang’s story is a love story. They met in 1999 and went on their first date at Kehoe Beach in Point Reyes National Seashore. As they walked along the sand, each of them began picking up pieces of plastic. Surprised at the coincidence, they looked at each other and asked, “Are you going to keep that?” They discovered that they both shared a history of collecting plastic and turning it into art.

Not long after, the two artists were invited to participate in a show about environmental art. They went through their beach plastic collections and found that the most common pieces were caps from juice lids and water bottles. They took the caps and began forming concentric circles.

“We decided we were going to make them into something. One thing led to another and we made them into a big trophy fish as a reminder of our days at Kehoe Beach,” Richard says.

On an average day, the couple collects 70 to 80 pounds of plastic. They rinse out the sand and sort it by color and then by object.

“Part of the fun is in the finding,” Judith says. “When we’re out at the beach, we have this really great competitive spirit about who can find the best thing on that particular day.”

“Every single piece of plastic was once owned by someone—maybe it was their shampoo bottle or their comb or whatever,” Judith says. “So we feel a real personal intimacy with every piece of plastic that we pick up and we’re curious about its origins, what it might once have been.”

One of the couple’s most intriguing finds was a plastic Pinocchio, less than an inch high, which was eroded and sea-worn. Richard cites the irony of finding a plastic fairy-tale character that represents the evils of lying. He says that our society is being told lies about plastic. “Plastic is not cheap and that’s the lie,” he says. “It’s very expensive to our health, and it’s very expensive to manufacture and to get rid of it.”