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This San Francisco art exhibit takes another look at trash


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Now we take a look at an acclaimed program that supports artists who turn discarded items into diverse and significant works.

Special correspondent Cat Wise has our report. It's part of our Canvas series on arts and culture.

Cat Wise: In a drab industrial building in San Francisco, a lively crowd of art enthusiasts gathered recently for the opening of an exhibition.

In many ways, it was a typical art show. Pieces were studied and discussed.

Woman: I love these colors.

Cat Wise: But the work on display wasn't typical. Every material used, from the colorful paints to the wood frames, came from a site just steps away: the city dump.

Mark Baugh-Sasaki: My process is always messy and dirty. So, it wasn't really too far of a stretch for me.

Cat Wise: Mark Baugh-Sasaki was one of the two local artists featured. His creations were the culmination of a four-month artist-in-residence program at San Francisco's waste and recycling company, Recology.

Mark Baugh-Sasaki: So, that piece is called Mule. And it was humorous, but it's also thinking about travel and migration, what people carry with them.

Cat Wise: For nearly 30 years, this unique program, which is funded by the company and ratepayers, has been a well-loved part of the Bay Area art scene.

But in recent years, the message that emerges from the art about our consumption and waste habits has taken on new urgency, as the city strives to divert 100 percent of discarded items from landfills. About 170 professional and student artists have gone through competitive residency.

They are given a studio space, a small monthly stipend, and access to an area of the dump known as the public recycling and reuse area. Here at San Francisco's Recology waste processing facility, 3,000 tons of garbage, recycling and compost materials are discarded every day.

Like most dumps, it's smelly and dirty, but it is here where the artists find a treasure trove of materials. As we followed along, Baugh-Sasaki and fellow resident artist Leah Rosenberg found several interesting items they pulled from the heap.

Leah Rosenberg: Is this handy?

Mark Baugh-Sasaki: Yes, actually. Yes. No dice. It's a toy.

Cat Wise: What was the scavenging process like for you?

Mark Baugh-Sasaki: Overwhelming at times. When we first came, there was very high activity. I think there were a lot of building projects.

I'm from San Francisco, and a lot of the houses that I grew up in are a lot of those materials that are kind of showing up here. You become excited about those materials. But you're also thinking about how the city is changing, and you're thinking about all these different things as you're out there. So it's a very layered experience.

Cat Wise: Over the years, all types of art have been created from San Franciscans' trash, sculptures, including a life-size Hummer made of styrofoam, prints, large installations, puppets, fashion, and even a symphony performed on instruments made from discarded items.

Deborah Munk: We can get people excited about recycling, because we're not pounding them over the head, telling them to recycle. They come to the opening and they see that the artists have transformed these materials, and so, hopefully, you know, we're transforming their habits and their minds.

Cat Wise: Deborah Munk is the director of the program. She says, while one of the main goals is to reduce waste, the art that is created should be taken seriously.

Deborah Munk: We're not a junk art program. We're not a found art program. We're an internationally renowned art program, where many of the artists have never worked with found materials. And so this is their first experience, and so they have a challenge of, you know, they don't get to go out and buy what they need. They have to respond to whatever comes their way.

Cat Wise: For artist Leah Rosenberg, whose love of color is evident in all her work, what came her way caught her by surprise.

Leah Rosenberg: So three weeks into the residency I found my own personal garbage.

Cat Wise: The year before, Rosenberg had created an installation at San Francisco museum with vibrant cakes. The stands were discarded by an independent vendor and had found their way into the trash before her.

Leah Rosenberg: I had to take a moment to think, does this mean it's a moment where I have to just watch them go, or is this sort of a responsibility as an artist to turn this thing into something beautiful and lasting? And I picked the second.

Cat Wise: She managed to get 40 of the original 80 stands out, and their tops became her canvas.

Leah Rosenberg: I was inspired by watching the staff at the household hazardous waste mix the paint, and all of the colors were mixing in together, but not as a whole solid. My goal was then just to make the most beautiful and lasting series of paintings that I could.

Cat Wise: Recology now has similar programs in Portland and Seattle. And, in San Francisco, a new crop of artists is turning trash into treasure.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Cat Wise.

Judy Woodruff: A symphony from instruments created from the trash. You have to love it.

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