Environmentally-Conscious Artists Turn Trash into Treasures

By Maddie Orton
Arts Correspondent

Trash ARTstravaganza has hit the Arts Council of Princeton. Works from Princeton University’s annual sustainable art contest are on display, demonstrating that one’s man trash is another man’s craft supply closet. And the results are astounding.

“That familiarity with the pieces is great to see because people will walk in and you see them looking at it and then a big smile like: ‘Hey, I know what that is! It’s an Orange Crush bottle cap!’” says the Arts Council of Princeton’s Artistic Director Maria Evans.

That moment of realization is bound to happen in this show. Artists of all ages transformed cans and cardboard into toy trucks, hubcaps into a hotel and bike tires with produce netting into couture. Eleven-year-old Pat Sae-Wang won the university’s contest with her snazzy newspaper dress.

But the biggest piece in the gallery is the brainchild of musician David McAllister. He started creating this menagerie of characters while taking care of his mother who was suffering from pulmonary fibrosis. A Princeton native, he would clean up the neighborhood while walking his dog.

“I would have her little waste bags and sometimes I didn’t have to use her little waste bags,” McAllister says, “so they became waste bags for trash that I found.”

McAllister collected cigarette butts, mini liquor bottles and other litter to keep the streets clean, and then he’d leave the bags of trash on the back porch. When his mother found the collection, she wasn’t pleased.

“I said, ‘I’m going to build something out of it, just leave it.’ And I was being facetious of course,” McAllister says.

But McAllister’s mom was not messing around.

“The next day when I came home, the trash was all gone,” he says, “and I found it dumped out on my floor in my bedroom with a little bottle of crazy glue, and she had a note that said: ‘You’re going to start building. Get started.’”

McAllister lights up when he talks about his work. He says he “trashed a good part of his life” through the way he lived as a musician on the road, and he turned it around — just like he did with the litter through his figurines.

“And I did this with my mother’s support,” McAllister says. “And she passed away last year, but she was able to see all of this come to its fruition, and she was very proud.”

As visitors walk past bottle cap sculptures and light bulb trees, one sentiment seems to resonate throughout the gallery: “Why didn’t I think I think of that?!”

Princeton resident Jonathan Braighthwaite is struck by a plastic bottle creation. “And I’m like, ‘Gee, I threw out all those bottle caps that I have that I was saving, and now I realize that I could have made something out of it.’”

Organizers hope visitors like Braightwaite walk away inspired to think creatively about sustainability. The Trash ARTsravaganza show runs through June 26.