A drum kit made out of a tire and decorated with beer bottle caps. A camel with golf club feet. A miniature parasol made from Salem cigarette packets. Strings of bottle caps formed to look like lei hulu, the feather lei.
The artwork is diverse at the new Art of Trash exhibit in Wailuku. It’s alternately serious and playful, sculptural or painting-like, functional or abstract, but what it all has in common that it’s made from what would otherwise be considered junk. The “reused, recycled, reinvented” materials used by the artists ranges from plastic gathered from the sea to old light fixtures to discarded rubber slippers, and it comes together in an exhibit that’s equal parts pointed and whimsical.
A three-week, juried art exhibition based around Earth Day, the Art of Trash show features creations made by Maui artists entirely from garbage.The Art of Trash is presented by Malama Maui Nui and Sharing Aloha, and the annual project has been going on for over a decade. The idea behind the exhibit is to shed light on our ongoing waste problem and investigate creative ways to keep everyday items out of the landfill. This year, for the first time, the exhibit is in Wailuku town; the gallery is on Main Street, next to Native Intelligence. The exhibit will run through Apr. 28 from 10am-5pm.
Despite the heavy rain and the cancellation of Wailuku First Friday, the exhibit opened last Friday night and still had a good turn out in spite of the puddles dotting Wailuku town. With the Merrie Monarch Festival live streaming on a laptop at the entrance, a large contingency of Malama Maui Nui and Sharing Aloha employees and board members mingled with the damp crowd to explain and explore the art. Workers were wearing some of the wearable trash art, like hats and dresses crafted from plastic, and there were $10 recycled screen-printed t-shirts for sale.
“It’s different every year; it just keeps getting better and better,” said Susy, who is on the board of Sharing Aloha, when I went to check out the exhibit on opening night. “We’ve been at Maui Mall forever, so it’s our first time in Wailuku,” said Gabriella, who works at Malama Maui Nui. “We’re stoked on that!” Despite the rain, they still had a good turnout. “The artists are so creative and talented. It’s such a great event. Wonderful people submit work, great people come and get inspired and then they want to contribute next year,” said Susy.
For the second year in a row, the show was juried by Judy Bruder, who hung the exhibit alongside Rob Spencer. “It’s a joy for me to get to do it,” said Bruder. “I’m honored that I’ve gotten to jury it twice. I’m always very impressed with what people use within their pieces.”
According to Bruder, artist Ira Ono started Art of Trash more than a decade ago. “Some people think of this kind of art as really trash put together, and not fine art, but I have a real love for outsider art, which is art that is outside of the regular format with certain guidelines that aren’t adhered to,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be critically correct. This form of outsider art–trash, or recycled goods–has become very important. What people are creating out of trash–and God knows there is so much trash–it has been very interesting.”
Another unique thing about this exhibit Bruder points to is the accessibility of it to everyday folks who might be challenged or intimidated by high or fine art. “The thing about a show like this is it’s a really good draw for all kinds of people,” she said. “It isn’t what some people might consider ‘high art,’ and so it’s okay to just look at it and be delighted by it. You don’t have an art background to appreciate it, and it appeals to everybody–kids and adults.”
Bruder also speaks to the underlying message of the exhibit: our trash problem, and what we’re going to do about it. “I think it behooves all of us to look at what we have considered to be trash, disposable, as something other than that, because we can’t keep doing that, there’s no room anymore,” Bruder said. “That should enlighten us to some degree about what we should use, and what we’re going to do with it when we’re done.”
Bruder would like to see the idea grow in the community. “If it could be at community centers, for groups or individuals to create pieces, I think it could be an incredible way to supplement the arts programs on this island that are almost non-existent, except for those schools that can still provide,” she said.
Bruder pointed out that in the art, “you can always find something in it that is uniquely Hawaii, such as Primo bottle caps. It’s quite amazing what can become of trash. You look at the show and it’s very uplifting. These are the people who think about trash out of the bag and come up with something provocative that causes us to question what it is and what are we going to do about it. It’s very exciting to me, to see the creative force that is so important in this world.”
Melody Koerber is one of the artists with that creative force with work on display at the exhibit. Koerber grew up on Maui, and her artist mother Deybra Fair was an inspiration to her. “I grew up amidst her flurry of daily creativity,” says Koerber. Koerber currently works as a costume designer for film and television series, and has designed for productions like Pirates of the Caribbean, The Lone Ranger and Key & Peele.
Koerber’s mother Fair has her own piece, Love Bomb, on display (this piece, which is depicted on our cover image at the top of this story, ultimately won the Art of Trash contest). Bruder also spoke enthusiastically about Fair’s work: “Deybra’s one of the artists on Maui that’s really on the forefront of recycling. She’s been doing it for years and years. It’s a pretty unique ability to be able to look at what other people consider to be junk, crap, and to see something within it that you can create something shining out of it.”
For Koerber’s piece, titled Ali‘i of the Sea, “my mother and I took a trip to the harbor to collect sea garbage,” said Koerber. “I found so many amazingly colorful marine ropes washed up on the rocks,” which she wove into the piece.
Her work is a “Mohawk headdress, resembling an Ali‘i helmet with old paintbrushes from my mother’s studio, an ode to her influence and guidance,” Koerber said. “When I’m home again I’ll make a costume to go with the wig.” In the headpiece, old paintbrushes stiffened with dried paint splay out from a bed of fish nets.
“When I’m home in the islands I love creating whimsical pieces for the joy of it,” said Koerber. Last year, she did a series of haku leis every day for the month of May. You can check out her art on her Instagram, @Maidenmelody
Another artist, Tim Gunter, has been contributing pieces to the Art of Trash for ten years. “It’s unbelievable what that man does,” said Bruder.
“I’m glad you appreciate my sense of humor,” said Gunter, whose friends call him Gunner, when I told him I loved his work. Gunter owns Gunter Consulting and Maui Organic Compost, through which he works with compost sites all over Maui. “I help people grow anything in any area,” he said.
Gunter’s numerous pieces at the exhibit range over a variety of whimsical themes, with steampunk vibes and a liberal dose of humor. One of his pieces on display, Little Sinker, is a three-toed old sink-man sticking out his rubber slipper tongue with an old brush for hair.
“I looked at the sink and decided it needed legs,” Gunter said. “Well, if it has legs, I might as well give it some arms. Now that it has limbs, it should have eyes and a mouth. I first made a blueprint, and then I realized I cut the pieces too short so I changed the blueprint.”
Repurposing what other people might consider trash is a bit of a theme to Gunter. “I have never considered myself an artist,” he said. Rather, recycling and reusing old objects is a lifestyle.
His home and yard are full of offbeat, repurposed items most people would throw into the landfill–an old motorcycle turned into a planter, a sculpture of a man playing a broken guitar among the trees and geckos and elephants made out of landfill-fodder.
“I make maybe a piece a week after work or in the evening,” said Gunter. “I don’t really work to hard at it. It’s just fun, like reading a book or gardening.”
Megan Koeberler is another artist with abundant, inventive pieces on display, many of which share a marine theme and have a more poignant feeling than Gunther’s work. One work, Mahi Mahi, Plastic Plastic–You Are What You Eat, forms the silhouette of a mahi mahi, its high-domed forehead crafted from nurdles of plastic sea trash. Then there’s the almost-realist piece Don’t Get Stung, in which iridescent jellyfish made from plastic bags hang from a display, a sad tribute to the sea creatures harmed by human waste.
Now is a particularly good time to consider trash. As zero-waste and lower-waste efforts around the island gain momentum and the styrofoam ban goes into effect, more and more people are gaining awareness of the effects and impact of our convenience-based lifestyle of single-use items that will be used for 10 minutes and then thrown out, to exist forever in the landfill. But when pointing out a big, depressing problem, it’s important to point to a solution.
The Art of Trash does not purport to solve this problem; it’s not that all of our trash can suddenly become useful or beautiful art. Rather, it points out the ingenuity of people in the face of solving complex problems without easy solutions.
It shows that with effort and creativity, we can create something good out of something daunting and terrible. The Art of Trash creates awareness and interest about trash and its implications, as well as hope for other creative solutions through the ingenuity of human activity.
“It takes trash out of the dump and puts it whimsically in front of your eyes,” said Bruder. “Frightening, charming, beautiful, ugly, wonderful–you are aware of it, you are aware of it as trash, that it is a way bigger problem than this. It’s about confronting an issue, and one way of confronting a really heavy issue is to put it in front of people in a palliative way, so we can ask, what about all these plastic forks? Do we really need a straw with every drink? The art brings up real conversations that can and should go on.”
After checking out the exhibit with my friend Melekai, we headed to Wai Bar to talk and have a drink. The straws, we couldn’t help but notice, were made from paper.
There, we met a young man named Ryan, someone we swore we knew from somewhere–a Maui boy and music aficionado. The conversation roamed from spiritual vampires to the protective properties of black labradorite, as conversations often do in Wailuku, but one thing our new friend said gave me pause, and made me think about the art exhibit in a new light.
“We have to give up all hope of having a better past,” he said. It struck me that that’s what the Art of Trash is saying, too: We can’t keep just lamenting our poor behaviors and decisions about waste creation and management. Right now, it’s not too late to create something good out of the trash. The Art of Trash shows us a way to start.
The Art of Trash runs through April 28. The gallery is at 1980 Main St., Wailuku. The exhibit is open 10am-5pm. For more information, call 808-877-2524.
Cover design: Darris Hurst
Photos: Sean M. Hower