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Supplies at their disposal, artists turn junk into art

SAN FRANCISCO -- Other artists might take offense if someone described their work as derivative junk and their studio as a real dump. Not Nome Edonna, the newest artist-in-residence at the place where San Francisco's garbage goes.

Edonna, a painter and fan of vintage collectibles, couldn't be more inspired as he picks through a pile of rubbish that a pickup truck just added to the heap in a salvage-sorting warehouse.

Wearing gloves and work boots, he inspects what appear to be the vestiges of an old woman's estate -- letters written in Spanish, crystal sherbet dishes wrapped in newspaper, used cold cream jars-- and adds a tattered pink lampshade to his metal shopping cart.

"If you like digging through stuff, it's like a dream come true," said Edonna, 33, who is thinking about making a hand-built phonograph and a skull sculpture out of forsaken computer monitors during his four-month stint turning trash to treasure. "I can't think of another residency I'd rather have."

Although the idea of turning discarded objects into "found" art is not new, San Francisco may be the only city where artists are paid to create masterpieces from the raw material of people's lives. For 16 years, the private company that runs the city's recycling program has provided Bay Area artists with a $1,900 monthly stipend, fully equipped work space, and an end-of-term public art exhibit, along with access to a first-class assortment of castoffs.

The purpose of the competitive program is to reduce waste that would otherwise end up in a landfill by showing how it can be creatively reused, said Paul Fresina, who runs the Nor cal Waste Systems artist-in-residence program.

"I want the message to be, 'Go try this at home,' " Fresina said.

About 60 artists apply for the program each year and between four and eight are selected. Most who've participated work in the visual arts, although a handful of writers and musicians have been chosen.

Besides pledging to work at the dump for a certain number of hours per week, artists are required to donate three finished pieces to the dump.

The work ends up decorating Nor cal Waste System's offices, in a gallery that school groups visit during tours of the garbage facility, or in a sculpture garden designed by Susan Leibovitz Steinman, one of the program's first residents and the sister of photographer Annie Leibovitz. "We have a better art collection than most companies," Fresina said.

The salvage warehouse, where the artists prowl, is off-limits to the public and contains refuse people pay to dump instead of the garbage hauled from curbs and city trash bins. As trucks unload construction debris, mattresses, electronics, record albums, and books, plant workers salvage the best stuff for thrift stores, homeless shelters, and themselves.

It's a sweet gig, if you don't mind the smell or depressing sense of waste that comes with the territory, according to several artists. Cameras, sewing machines and televisions that still work, unopened kitchen gadgets, and barely used office furniture join unpublished manuscripts, bottles of perfume, and sports trophies in an inconspicuous display of consumption and longing.

Touched by the stacks of carefully assembled photo albums that surely would have been wanted by someone, somewhere, artist Noah Wilson created an exhibit earlier this year of black-and-white landscapes from the 1920s and 1930s using transparencies and negatives he culled from the reject pile.

"A lot of people are instantly baffled by the idea of digging through trash, but once I tell them the things I found, they think it's pretty cool," said Sudhu Tewari, another artist selected for this term's residency.

Tewari, 29, makes kinetic sculptures and musical instruments, so he needs a lot of scrap metal and moving parts for his projects. While combing the mound one recent morning, though, he bypasses a rusty stationary bicycle with all its parts in hopes of finding a newer model. He sees two or three other such remnants of failed New Year's resolutions get dropped off every day.

Deborah Munk, who helps coordinate the art program, said some artists get so entranced by the possibilities that she has to pull them out of the warehouse two months into their residencies and say, "OK, stop digging around and start making something."

While much of the art that gets made at the dump has an industrial feel to it, such as the ethereal sculpture crafted from empty vodka bottles, artist Kim Weller decided to take her work to another level earlier this year. Weller scavenged thin sheets of wood from abandoned doors and shipping crates, sanded, repaired, and painted them in Day-Glo colors that mirrored the safety vests dump workers wear.

The result was a 3-D re-creation of a summer's day at the beach scene from the cover of an Archie comic book. Captivated by the juxtaposition of the innocent idyll she produced and the bleak, industrial landscape it occupied at the dump across a freeway from San Francisco Bay, she named the piece "Friendly Fire."

But, Weller said, "during my show, someone referred to this as 'Teenage Wasteland,' which I thought was great."

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