The Fine Art of Recycling

If my job as an artist is to fill the world with “more things,” I feel it is equally important that I reclaim materials from the waste stream to make space for my work.

I believe that creative re-use has the potential to spark new ways of looking at the world… if one thing can be turned into another, what else can we change? Successful recycled art and design encourages creativity in others— it’s alchemical, magical, subversive, and transformative by nature. My sculptural work is a way of demonstrating in concrete physical terms that the world and the items in it are not as obvious, limited or easily identified as they appear at first glance. It allows me to engage my audience to be more creative in their own daily lives and to think more creatively about the world around them.

As an artist, my job is to communicate ideas clearly, reach people emotionally, inspire or incite change and to fill in the blanks in the world… finding new ways of seeing things, or creating the things that don’t exist but so obviously should have once they do. There’s an Arthur Koestler quote I like that describes this, “The more original a discovery, the more obvious it seems afterwards.” My most successful art is based on years of training myself to see things that no one else does. I’ve learned a habit of reversing, inverting, subverting, or combining random statements to see if there’s a great truth hiding there that no one has noticed yet. I intentionally try to misread any clichés I run across. How can I hear it wrong but better? How can I creatively misinterpret things? How can I see the things that aren’t there?

A recent example of this technique is a new project called “Venting Machines.” The idea was inspired by a typo (“venting” should have been “vending”). I immediately realized that people have an obvious need to vent frustrations, are willing to pay for the privilege and that a vending machine that allowed them to “vent” would serve a very useful social and personal need while at the same time being a great art project. The project will use retired pay phones altered to play supportive messages through the earpiece when a customer puts in a coin and begins to speak their frustrations into the mouthpiece. Although this project will serve a useful social function, and utilizes existing materials for its corpus, I believe that the social critique, theater and interactive quality of the overall project readily land it within the bounds of fine art. As a globally installed public art project, I feel it has great potential.

I work in a lot of different styles using a wide variety of materials. Each new medium, motif or material sharpens both my critical thinking and my physical skills so that my work improves across the board with each new project. The fifteen years I spent pursuing a poetry career, for instance, has had a direct effect on how I deal with subject matter, meaning and nuance as a visual artist. The structure and theory I learned as a musician applies directly to my use of pattern, rhythm, lyricality and syncopation in metalwork. I create objects that will endure by drawing from primal metaphor and classical elements of design.

Functionality is a core value of artistic design for me and much of my work is intended to be useful as well as beautiful. People who buy art live with art… they interact with it on a daily basis. I draw inspiration from the way my art impacts people and the way that they interact with the finished piece, just as I think deeply about positive and negative space when creating pattern. Some of my earliest steel sculptures were figurative work in which I attempted to capture essential human gestures so precisely that the mind completes the movement—making a still image appear to be in motion. I experimented with these figures as free standing sculptures, as pattern elements within fences and finally as decorative elements within fine art chairs. I realized, after studying human form and movement so assiduously, that the design of a chair depends much more on attention to negative space than positive space. If you focus only on the form of the chair, your design may or may not be beautiful, but will almost certainly be unusable. If you design to hold the negative space (the person who will sit in the chair) there is still endless opportunity for novelty or beauty, but the function is ensured. The strict limitations of working with designing a good chair taught me volumes about 3D design, sculpture and use of space.

I enjoy the practical aspect of art and feel that engineering is as essential as ingenuity in the creation of solid works of art which will stand critical review. For me, the design process also includes craft: developing the physical skills and knowledge to create work which is durable, well conceived, and well executed. A brilliant idea poorly executed fails to live up to its potential. This concern for functionality comes from lessons learned the hard way in my artistic practice. My earliest mixed media work was often created with non-archival materials… found objects, collage, pigments that weren’t light-fast. I re-assessed this practice when I chose to make art my full time career. I became concerned with creating art that had permanence and provided a better investment for my patrons and safeguarded my legacy as an artist. I make frequent calls to manufacturers, lab techs and engineers who supply my materials, to discuss new ways of using their materials, different methods, long term viability, etc.

What ultimately draws people to my work is the sculptural quality, the ideas behind the work, the stories that I provide to support those ideas, the drama of the object, the metaphoric and symbolic content of the designs.

As Gabriel Guzman writes in The Daily Book of Art:

“Who would have thought that a bowl of fire could be so beautiful? Artist John Unger’s art portfolio ranges from bottle-cap mosaics to furniture, but he is perhaps best known for his amazing fire bowls. Hand-cut out of recycled steel, these bowls combine sculpture and function to create unique works of art with industrial flair that provide warmth and an exciting centerpiece for events. When in use, the flame-like edges of these bowls cast mesmerizing shadows that dance across the ground, acting as part of the art.”

Most firepits, whether commercial or homemade are unsightly when not in use… my firebowls function as gorgeous sculptural art at all times, whether holding a fire or not. The finish on the sculptures is a natural patina that relates directly back to flame in it’s coloration… reds, oranges, yellows and blacks. In sunlight, the designs cast intriguing shadows both inside and outside the bowl. These shadows are an important part of the design process for the sculptures, even those with the simplest forms. When lit, the bowls cast flickering shadows as lively as the fire within. When not in use, the designs still show an ever shifting positive and negative space. They interact with the lighting of their environment in a way that involves constant change through seasons, weather and the time of day.

There’s a poetry to the original design, my Great Bowl O’ Fire, which extends to the larger body of work— using a torch to cut flame images into a flammable gas storage tank to create a firebowl is a perfect example of how I like materials and ideas to work together. The meaning of the finished object is encoded in its raw materials. That kind of layered metaphor is what I enjoy most about working with recycled materials. The overlap between pattern and meaning can start with either the goal or the object: Sometimes I look at an item and imagine what else it could be, sometimes I have an idea for something I want to create and look for items that are similar to the desired shape or function and could be used as a staring point to make the piece. In all cases, I prefer the material to in some way echo the subject matter or ideas of the piece. There has to be a connection between idea and object that transcends pure engineering issues in order for me to feel a sculptural work is successful. On every Great Bowl O’ Fire I cut, there is a stylized flame in the shape of a phoenix rising through the embers to symbolize the rebirth of scrap steel into something new and wonderful. The phoenix is always the first flame I cut into the bowl, the beginning of its transformation.

The public response to my firebowl sculptures is on a much deeper level of meaning than purely decorative or functional work. From the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago to the Iron Horse Biker Church of Axtell, Texas, my sculptural firebowls have been commissioned by a number of churches of different faiths, who apply their own meanings to the work in their Liturgies and services.

But a design need not be complex to hold deeper meaning. A recent review of my work by Amrita Chandra, a prominent Toronto gallery owner and champion of modern art read:

“What I realized was that though his work is functional, what he makes are sculptures. The abstract pieces in particular would be at home in a contemporary art gallery, and his more decorative pieces in the sculpture garden of the DeCordova Museum.

It is hard to define what constitutes art and in many ways I think it’s irrelevant, like trying to define love. When I see John’s firebowls I see the statement he is making to the world – partly intentional, partly magic. The connection between his materials and the fires that burn within his sculptures feel primal. John’s artist statement declares that he designs for permanence and that presence comes through in the weight of his minimalist pieces in particular”

The simpler designs of my firebowls are a direct tribute to and study of modernism. My Isosceles Modern, Font O’ Fire and Big Bowl O’ Zen were inspired by such artists and designers as Charles and Ray Eames, Donald Judd, Jasper Johns. The Sunfire was inspired in part by the 1947 Ball Clock created for Herman Miller by George Nelson, Noguchi and Bucky Fuller. The simple geometric forms of these sculptures are in no way required for the function of the object, and in fact the sculptures are often purchased with no intention of actually using them on any regular basis (or at all) to hold fire. The Isosceles Modern is just as often used as a bowl, a decorative element, or as a surface to display other items.

In most of my art that uses recycled materials, my goal is to transform the original object so thoroughly that it appears to be made from scratch. I shy away from creating work where the source materials can be easily identified unless the history of the object specifically plays into the meaning which I intend to convey with the art (as with the pay phones for the Venting Machine project, since the phone is one of the most common ways we express our frustrations). In many instances, by taking a discarded object which was once useful and making it useful again in a totally different context, in a completely new way, I am able to show connections which are not obvious, draw parallels between seemingly unrelated ideas or create social commentary which hopefully illuminates cultural practices or better yet opens those to question.

I generally think of my art career as having started shortly before my first gallery show. But, while writing this essay and looking back at various examples of my art from recycled materials, I realized that this is a form of art I’ve practiced most of my life. At age eight I taught myself how to cast recycled lead melted over an open fire and learned to forge intricate toys working with steel, copper, brass and semi-precious stones. At this stage, even my tools were found objects: Using a coffee can as crucible to melt the lead, and a discarded flywheel as an anvil to shape steel and other metals. When I was 19, I started a business with my girlfriend making hats made from reclaimed fabric. The cloth was overage found in the dumpster of a futon factory, fresh off the bolt. The sewing machine we used was found in an alley and repaired at minimal cost. Remaking the world from its broken and cast off pieces has really been the work of a lifetime… and I’m pleased with the shape of the world that I’ve built.