Cover Stories

The Only Way is Up

GT1527 coverWEBUpcycling makes art out of trash

Ever wondered where toilet seats go when they die? If they’re lucky, they go to Robbie Schoen.

Schoen, the director of the Felix Kulpa Gallery on Elm Street in Santa Cruz, is also an artist who makes most of his work from upcycled materials. He has turned everything from toilet seats to tires into functional guitars.  

Upcycling is taking an object that is going to be thrown away and making it into something of value. Schoen describes it as similar to recycling, but a little bit better. “When you take something from garbage to art, I think that is an upgrade,” he says. “It’s a slightly higher category of recycling. It’s a classy transformation.”

Schoen never knows where the materials for his next piece will come from.

“Today somebody came in and brought me a box with a bunch of rusty things.” Schoen says. “It’s worthless to them, but to me it was a treasure chest. That’s what upcycling is to me, where things that look like they belong in the dump come to this gallery and get combined with other objects to create works of art.”

Schoen was inspired to make his first guitar around 10 years ago. “I was driving down the freeway and I saw what looked like a guitar on the side of the road, but it actually was a catalytic converter with an exhaust pipe attached to it that had spun out from underneath a car. I pulled over, and at much risk, retrieved the object and took it home and turned it into a fully functional electric bass guitar,” he says.

Schoen named that first guitar “Wreck and Roll,” and went on to create more than a dozen more upcycled guitars over the years.

Schoen’s fans leave a lot of “interesting objects” for him at the gate of his gallery. “I got a set of old skis and ski poles that look like they were 100 years old,” he says. “Somebody left me a set of bocce balls a few months ago. People leave their little contributions, and I really appreciate it … I have sort of an unconscious wish list of what I need, and I find it as time goes by. Those things show up.”

cov 1Schoen traces the history of upcycling back to “the teens or the ’20s, when artists like Marcel Duchamp were doing similar things. I think it’s going to be around a long time. Especially with things changing so quickly in our lives.”

He appreciates the way upcycling preserves the past while creating something new and beautiful. “There’s a lot of stuff that is becoming obsolete, hard to find, and I like to think it will show up at the gallery and I can turn it into a fountain or a guitar,” he says. “Then you can remember, you can reminisce about the good old days, but also have a new experience with these old objects that have been turned into new works of art.”

Lauren Junker, owner of the Santa Cruz-based company Totally Tubular Design, is a local artist who makes purses out of bicycle inner tubes. With the exception of the thread, zippers or Velcro, the bags Junker makes are made with materials that were all going to be thrown away.

It was a bit of competitiveness that pushed Junker toward junk.

“I started in 2006,” Junker says. “I saw a woman who had a purse made out of a truck inner tube, and it was just this piece of rubber folded in half with a little strap, and I was like ‘I’m gonna make something cooler than that.’”

Soon after, she made her first purse, and has been making bags out of bicycle inner tubes ever since. Junker moved to Santa Cruz in 2006 and says that after moving here, making bags switched from being mostly a hobby to a job—using inner tubes from most of the bike shops in Santa Cruz.

Junker looks to others for ideas on designs. “I think, because I like making things out of trash, I have a poor sense of fashion,” she says. “So I try and pay attention to other people’s fashion, and start with that.”

She also works to make products that will last. “Part of my vision is I would rather make a simpler product that’s really high quality, that’s going to last for a long time, as opposed to making something that’s got tons of little pockets and bells and whistles that has potential to fall apart faster.”

After moving to Santa Cruz from Los Angeles, Junker noticed a significant difference in how people living in those cities reacted to her bags, and the concept of upcycling.

“Santa Cruz embraces the idea of upcycling,” she says. “When I lived in Los Angeles and I was trying to sell bags there, people just thought I was weird. Then I moved here. It was like I got this nice big hug from Santa Cruz and everyone’s like ‘Yeah, this is so cool’. I just think Santa Cruz gets it.”

Last month, Junker taught a week-long upcycling class at a summer camp at Good Shepherd Catholic School. She worked with a group of 16 kids between the ages of 7 and 13 on projects like decorating recovered trucker hats to making sea-glass jewelry. Junker says that the group had a good time.

“I brought my box of junk, and I’ve never seen children so excited to rummage through junk,” she says. “They were so engaged, and I think they had fun with trash.”

Junker enjoys transforming trash into useful objects. “For me, upcycling is taking something that nobody wants anymore and turning it into something cool and different that has use again,” Junker says.

Items used for upcycling are not limited to what you can find in a landfill. Some upscale businesses in the area have embraced the concept in a different way.

Arteak Interiors in Santa Cruz sells everything from the reinvented remains of discarded door frames to upcycled pillows. Scott Burns, owner of Arteak, travels to Southeast Asia at least once a year and brings back items discarded from old structures, like doors and decorative window frames.

Burns says that the dollar cost of the wood he uses is more expensive than newer wood because the wood is older and of higher quality. “But the cost to the environment is far less. Because you’re just taking material that already exists and you’re reusing it. You’re not cutting down trees,” he says.

Burns says that around 90 percent of the products in his store are upcycled—a cushion made in India from an old sari, picture frames made from magazines, a kitchen table made from an antique door.

Most of the products in his store are from Southeast Asia, while between 10 and 20 percent are locally made. One bench in his store is made from wood from an old fence post he salvaged from the area.

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