The Green Side of Art – Making New Beauty from Old Objects

This beer-bottle chandelier was the inspiration of artist Amy Leners. Photo: Courtesy Amy Leners

Have you ever looked at a beer bottle and thought, That would make a good candle? Like many people switching to a more environmentally friendly – “green” – lifestyle, artists are finding new ways to show their creativity while repurposing material that otherwise would be tossed in the garbage.

Tom Brown has found an outlet for his creativity by participating in the Iowa City Public Library’s Altered Book Sale and Exhibit.

For the past few years, people of all ages have been encouraged to participate in creating fun works of art using old books as the focal material of the work. Those who participate have the option of using their own library for material or picking up an old book from the Iowa City Public Library (ICPL).

Using recycled material such as books and copper, Brown went to work creating his piece for the exhibit: a lamp. Brown made the body from copper tubing and the shade from the pages of a medical encyclopedia.

“It was covered in skulls and kidneys and other body parts,” says Brown. He goes on to explain how he made sure he didn’t make the lampshade too thick. He wanted the words and images to create shadows on the surrounding walls.

Brown is not only a participant in the event; he also works at the ICPL. “People seem to enjoy the Altered Books event. Every year it seems like we talk about it being our last and then, come summer, people want to do it again,” Brown says.

Unfortunately, this year, it seems the event will not be continued. However, the local community libraries are contriving a new project to promote Iowa City’s literary culture and create interest in reading and writing.

Amy Leners is another who has enjoyed working with different “found” material.

“I think it was last spring,” recalls Leners, when she began searching for new and different ways to create art. “I went out on one of the trash days where anything and everything would be picked up. I noticed a lot of different sizes of bike tires, so I grabbed them.” After about a month, Leners decided what to create with her tires: a chandelier.

Leners first removed the rubber tires from the wheel frames. She used two tires: one a little over two feet in diameter and the other about one foot. Then, she says, she added some old beads she’d had for a long time to the spokes of the wheel. She stuck with darker colors for the beads, like crimson, violet, and navy.

Leners tied the two wheels together using old, white Christmas lights. Her final decoration is truly fitting for a college town: beer bottles.

“I used Rolling Rock bottles, because the light shines really nicely through the green bottles,” says Leners, who also admits it is a favorite drink among many of her friends.

Her current project is actually reworking her beer-bottle chandelier. Again, she is using bottles as her main material. “They’re just about the easiest thing to find in a college town,” she says. However, this time Leners is dropping the tire wheels for Styrofoam, an old magazine and IV tubing. Even though she bought the Styrofoam, Leners says she is preventing it from just being tossed out and sitting in a landfill forever.

A section of an art pieced made from book dust jackets. This one is titled, "Color Reading," and was created by Isabel Barbuzza. Photo: Courtesy Isabel Barbuzza

Much like Leners, artist Isabel Barbuzza gets a lot of her material from people she knows.

“Sometimes my students will just bring me different materials like books and plastic – things that were going to be thrown out if no one would claim them,” she says. “Other times I may get a call from different departments or libraries that are getting rid of books because everything is digital now.”

Barbuzza is an associate professor of art at the University of Iowa. Her work has been featured nationally and internationally: from California to New York, and from South America – where she is from — to Russia. Her artwork has ranged in price from $500 to $20,000.

“I just love working with books,” Barbuzza says. Recently, she completed a collage titled “Ekstassee” – pronounced ecstasy – using the dust jackets from art books. The various University of Iowa libraries collected the jackets for her.

Barbuzza’s collage is approximately eight to nine feet tall and two to four feet wide. The piece incorporates hundreds of different pictures that range from images of God to Batman on a motorcycle.

“The piece is all about seeing,” says Barbuzza. She adds that it also deals with perception and the subjectivity of reality: what is right and what is wrong.

At the top of the collage is a picture of a woman’s face. Barbuzza says that the woman in the image is blind, yet she is covering one eye like one would do when they may not want to see something.

“The picture was really what inspired me to create this piece,” Barbuzza said.

"Embrace Me," a suit made from mussel shells by artist Isabel Barbuzza. Photo: Courtesy Isabel Barbuzza

Another work of Barbuzza’s that incorporated recycled material is a work titled, “Embrace Me.” It is a suit created from mussel shells and Vaseline.

“I had mussel parties and invited friends over to help me eat all these mussels I needed for the suit.”

Barbuzza says the piece is quite heavy: 60 lbs. She added that she made sure to try it on at least once before she began showing it.

Whether creating art as a hobby or a calling, getting material doesn’t have to be an expensive process. An artist can create beauty from trash as easily as from new materials. Ultimately, it’s just about getting your concepts across to another person.

Barbuzza says, “I respond to materials, and I use whatever material is interesting to me to get my ideas across.”

The next time you’re about to throw out a milk carton, or other objects, stop and think about what you might create with it instead.

David Rowley

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)