Sustainable art and design: How Calgary artists, entrepreneurs are repurposing and upcycling
From Travelling Light’s blue rings to the steel and stones of the Bowfort Towers, Calgary and art have had a tense relationship. But there are so many ways people are creating in the city — some repurposing objects and others using recycled materials to make something new.
‘Zero waste craze’
Solita Work owns Reworks Upcycle Shop in Calgary, an eco-marketplace — with recycled, repurposed and locally made products — that has been open for almost eight years.
“Up until maybe the last year or two, it was a struggle; people didn’t understand what it was about,” she said. “Now the whole zero waste craze is getting people to understand how important it is to not put more pollution in the environment but also the social responsibility that comes with it.”
The store’s goal is zero waste: everything produced can be recycled, composted and repurposed while highlighting the local, creative market with people and resources from the community.
“It keeps more money in our local economy so we’re more socially responsible, but also it uses [fewer] resources when you’re purchasing local-made stuff as opposed to imports, so better for the environment long term,” Work said.
Work, whose background is in art and design, wanted to do something meaningful and get people to consider where products come from, so her store helps artists who share that vision.
“Upcycling is like recycling but it’s like repurposing something so it gives it more value,” she said.
“Cars, before they get recycled, they get stripped down and a lot of times, they just burn those materials and they’re plastic, basically it’s nylon,” she said.
“By taking a seatbelt that’s only worth a couple bucks maybe or maybe even pennies per yard, I’m turning it into a bag — not only are you giving more value to a seatbelt but you’re also making it something that someone can use for years and years.”
Upcycling is not just about social responsibility, Work said.
“It’s the fact of how clever the items are that some people make, and I think that’s what inspires people,” Work said.
“So I hope that people keep trying new things and seeing what they can make out of stuff that might end up in the landfill and doing something else with them.”
Painted pig skulls
When you walk down 8 Street S.W., one window will catch your eye. Gleaming, colourful, and real pig skulls line the panes of Posto Pizzeria & Bar.
Server Michelle MacDonald has spent the last couple of years painting the skulls in a myriad of ways. The theme appears to be waste not, want not.
“The chef orders in whole pigs and they use every part of the meat, all the face meat, every part of the animal gets used in different dishes, so there’s no waste,” she explained. “So this [painting them] is just part of it.”
WATCH: Calgary server and artist Michelle MacDonald describes how she paints pig skulls from Posto Pizzeria & Bar so that nothing goes to waste.
The former Alberta College of Art and Design student said being economical plays into her art, especially since she’s creating with something that would normally be tossed.
“It’s trying to use everything that I have to make something interesting with as little cost,” she said.
“There is the odd time it feels a little morbid to be painting on something that was once alive. When I’m getting started, I like to imagine what its personality was like and try to have my idea of what that was come through. The condition that the skulls come in are always different as well, which gives me restrictions that I actually find a really helpful catalyst for creativity.”
She paints each skull differently, sometimes using old old craft supplies, earrings, spray paint or lacquer.
“It’s very freeing because there’s no expectation on it. You can really do whatever you want with it,” she said.
MacDonald, also a pyrographer, said the owners and managers are supportive of her art career, letting her sell her work out of the restaurant.
“They pretty much give me free rein,” she said.
She said customers find her pieces intriguing.
“They like seeing something that’s creative and obviously, everyone likes to hear that there’s no waste because that’s a thing that’s on people’s minds a lot lately,” MacDonald said.
Scavenger art in the community
Artist Lane Shordee scavenges materials which then inform his work.
“I go down back alleys, see what people leave over and then try to turn it into something different,” he said. “Transforming it, reusing it, fixing it up.”
After completing six years at ACAD, Shordee became drawn to found object art, collecting things that interested him or sparked ideas.
“When I wasn’t making much money as an artist and starting out, I was looking at all kinds of ways in which I could sustain myself… I had to sustain myself as an artist before I could even look at what I’m doing and how I’m impacting the world. How to keep doing what I’m doing relied heavily on the materials at hand, whatever it be, and then I built techniques to work with all types of materials but I chose the simplest materials, which was just garbage and waste,” Shordee said.
It saves materials from heading to the landfill and might create something that’s beneficial to the community, he said.
“You might call it an ecosystem of the city — like how things move around and how they get processed and then turn into whatever,” he said.
Shordee is intrigued by how ecologies function: how the network of materials, people and the environment coincide.
“Waste can come in different forms and that’s what’s really intriguing about particular types of waste because of its connection with people,” he said. “Sometimes [the environment is] connected with history and it’s connected with people and communities.”
Those concepts led Shordee to think about a piece’s lifespan, especially if it’s an installation that affects the environment.
“If I’m making the art, do I feel like where it’s going afterwards that I’m not continuing to make garbage? Or at least I’m saving it from the landfill, I’m not adding new material to the thing,” he said.
“I like to make things that I can come back and visit, and learn about how it’s impacting the environment. Is it positively impacting the environment or is it negatively impacting the environment? Or maybe it’s just neutral.”
WATCH: Artist Lane Shordee describes how the materials he scavenges from around Calgary inform what he creates for the community, like 2013’s “Water Spiral” project.
He said that he’s an artist making work that just happens to follow what he believes in.
“I like to keep [my own art practice] sustainable, but then also sustainability means that we turn it into a circle rather than a line,” Shordee said.
“If we can use as much old material because it’s available — the city’s full of it. And now we can’t get rid of it as fast as we could, so it’s time to start thinking about that.”
Shordee said his role is to make the materials look interesting and approachable.
“It makes people feel like they can do it themselves,” he said.
The experimental nature of his art makes the questions flow: what does recycling look like? Does it look like the way we think it does or can it be disguised? Can it look like brand new material?
Shordee’s 2013 piece Water Spiral explores how the community interacts with his art. He said about 90 per cent of this work was reclaimed from a community cleanup.
“It was amazing to see all the material come in, people talk and tell stories,” he said. “It really shows what the community’s all about.”
It’s an example of what people get to enjoy collectively and for years to come.
“How it gets used, how it decays — is it just becoming more garbage that we have to deal with,” he said. “How junky is the junk that we’re using? Maybe it’s better than we thought it was.”
Martinus Pool, one half of the brotherly duo that started Calgary’s AdrianMartinus Design in 2012, turns old skateboards and hardwood into furniture, housewares and art.
The pair used what they learned in their construction apprenticeships, along with their dad’s carpentry tools, to transform the boards — a material that was easily accessible to them.
“They’re actually really extremely high-quality plywood,” Pool said.
Having grown up on an acreage outside of Red Deer, the brothers work well together, using complementary skills to make products.
“We don’t overlap on too many things and we stick in our lanes based on what we’re best at in the business,” Pool said.
They experimented with old skateboards, figuring out how to put them together.
“The first thing that really blew our minds or that opened up the possibilities that we could do — we made a baseball bat out of skateboards. So we did that and figured out how to do the lamination and how to cut it up, just how to process the skateboards to be useable,” Pool said.
Sustainability was never the first thought on the duo’s minds when they created the business, but it became a happy bonus.
“It was always what we had and what was available. When we started using hardware flooring, it was basically seeing how much was getting thrown out on residential jobs that we were working on and just grabbing it out of the dumpster because it’s free wood.
“With the skateboard being recycled and such a difficult thing to work with and the scarcity of them at the beginning really influenced our design approach — like really figure out how to use every single piece of the skateboard.”
The products they make are dictated by those available materials.
“It’s definitely rewarding to see how many different things we’ve figured out how to make with the skateboards,” Pool said.
“A lot of our intention with making our products was: just because it is recycled wood doesn’t mean that it has to look like it’s recycled wood. It can still look new and beautiful rather than just old and shabby.”
They work in big steps, degripping and cutting up the boards they have all at once.
“I get to make stuff and spend a lot of time at the lathe, which is basically a lot of people’s retirement dream,” Pool said.
Jewelry with Ghanaian flare
Akilah Ghann, her mom Emilyn Ghann and her sister Jameela Ghann are behind the Calgary brand Alora Boutique, which started in 2008.
Akilah is the is the general manager, and Emilyn and Jameela design, create and curate the jewelry.
“They thought they could bring beauty and meaning into women’s lives as well as bring in a positive force for change while still doing a business,” Akilah said.
“They put their minds together and figure out what might look good, what kind of story goes behind it. They take from their own life experiences and their cultural experiences and they put it together.”
She said they saw a gap in the jewelry market.
“Especially as we’re half Ghanaian, so bringing in that African aspect wasn’t really big at the time in Calgary,” Akilah said. “It’s starting to get more and more visible.”
Alora’s jewelry is ethically sourced and tries to be as environmentally friendly as possible because, as Akilah explained, it’s important to know where materials come from. Akilah said they try to find a lot of their recycled brass and silver in Calgary.
“We have local vendors and we go to estate sales and we get that remelted and recast into different designs,” she said.
WATCH: Akilah Ghann describes how her cultural background and sustainability play into her family jewelry business in Calgary.
Five per cent of Alora’s profits go to local organizations that help women, including the Mustard Seed and Louise Dean Centre.
“We’ve been here since my mom came 30, 35 years ago and we just want to give back to the community that’s helped us thrive so well,” Akilah said.
“We just want to make sure that the people who are buying our brand feel good and know that we try our hardest to make sure that everything is ethical and locally sourced as possible.”
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