Matthew Gottschalk, a former artist in residence, scavenges for material. Recology

Inside the artist-in-residence program at the San Francisco dump.

In San Francisco, when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade—as long as the lemons end up in the compost bin. And when life gives you discarded hats, tires, old paint, and toys, you make art.

In fact, since they started weighing it in 2011, artists at the city's trash company, Recology, have taken 180,302 pounds of discarded hotel uniforms, mass-produced artwork, wigs, and trade show banners, and made it all into new sculptures, photographs, paintings, and videos.

From Your Head to Mine, 2014. from Jamil Hellu on Vimeo. Hellu's headgear was scavenged from the dump.

This is the oldest recycling-inspired artist-in-residence program in the country—the "grandma," says spokeswoman Deborah Munk—and it just celebrated its 25-year anniversary. The project began in 1990 as San Francisco implemented its curbside recycling program. "It was the perfect way to get people interested in recycling and reuse," Munk says.

The idea, of course, is to serve two masters: the crunchy constituency who wouldn't dream of getting takeout in a Styrofoam box, and the artists who can get paid to work at the transfer station (aka the dump) for four months, using as their muse the abundance of the things San Franciscans throw away.

"Our mission is to promote recycling while supporting the Bay Area arts community," Munk says. "It's such a unique opportunity and such a perfect juxtaposition of all these worlds."

Brazilian-born artist Jamil Hellu, who recently finished a residency there, says he was astonished by the volume of items that flowed into the transfer station. "When you go there, you're overwhelmed by it all. This is just one city in the United States, with such a mound of stuff coming in every day."

In order to scavenge from the "public disposal area," artists have to don safety glasses, a hardhat, steel-toe boots, a safety vest, and gloves, says Munk. They also can't climb onto piles or enter debris boxes.

A work from Hellu's Shopping Carts series (Jamil Hellu)

But what they can do is load up a shopping cart with items they think they might be able to use. The shopping cart is symbolic of the volume of things people buy, and the amount of brand-new items they throw out, Hellu says. In his native Brazil, poor children will play with a plastic bag for lack of anything else. In San Francisco, however, an unsettling number of new toys end up at the dump.

"I never saw so many balls in my life," Hellu says. One of his works shows a red-painted shopping cart filled to overflowing with basketballs, soccer balls, footballs, and beach balls. Another video work depicts 450 shots of Hellu wearing a rapid and hilarious series of hats, scarves, wigs, and helmets, all scavenged.

In addition to those kind of goods, Recology figures that its facility gets about 600 tons of bottles and cans and 700 tons of organic material for compost every day. San Francisco was the first large city in America to mandate, starting in 2009, that all properties participate in curbside composting. (Only a handful of other cities, including Seattle, Berkeley, and Portland, Oregon, now require citizens to recycle their potato peels, grass clippings, and eggshells into a separate bin for compost.)

Over the past 25 years, Recology has brought in more than 100 artists. Two at a time work on the 47-acre site, with 99 percent of their materials coming from the dump.

Marta Thoma's "Earth Tear," 1993, made from rebar and plastic bottles (Recology)

Each artist then hosts an exhibition at the end of his or her residency, with some of their work going to Recology's permanent collection, which includes a three-acre sculpture garden. Tours, including school groups, also come through on a regular basis and can talk to the artists about their work and learn about recycling, composting, and the city's goal of zero waste by 2020.

Two other cities—Philadelphia and Portland, Oregon—have formed programs modeled after San Francisco's for artists at recycling centers.

Before Hellu started his residency, another artist told him that the program would change his work as well as his attitude toward waste. He was right, he says. "You become so much more aware ... of things we throw out and the things we can reuse."

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