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What is Upcycled Art?

Posted by Mark Godsell-Fletcher on

Upcycling materials for artistic purposes have always been very common in the production of folk or artisan art. However, the practice of upcycled art became popular in mainstream art in the 20th century, with various artists testing the waters at different times. The Dadaists, although they did not upcycle materials per se, produced works commonly known as Ready Made Art: usually purchasing items and placing them in such a way as to create artistic pieces. For instance, Marcel Duchamp purchased a commonplace porcelain urinal, signed and titled it, naming the piece Fountain, which became his best known oeuvre. Although many may not consider this work to be a work of art in the sense that it is not beautiful or because it does not seem to have required particular skill to make, it certainly sparked an artistic revolution as “He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view - and created a new thought for that object”[i]. For this reason, Duchamp’s Fountain is considered by many critics to be a landmark in twentieth century art. This type of “readymade art” became very popular with the Dadaists, and even inspired Picasso, who used a salvaged bicycle saddle and handlebars to create his “Bull’s Head” in 1942, as nod to the Dadaist movement. [caption id="attachment_6240" align="aligncenter" width="217"]Upcycled Fountain Figure 1 - Fountain[/caption] Perhaps one of the first examples of upcycling as we know it was Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers built between 1921 and 1954 in Nuestro Pueblo in Los Angeles, a huge  project which he built alone and with hand tools in his back garden. The towers themselves were built out of steel pipes that he wrapped in mesh wire, then coated with mortar and then decorated with objects such as broken glass, ceramic plates, sea shells and pottery that he collected. The Towers are now a National Historic Landmark. [caption id="attachment_6241" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Upcycled Art - Watts Figure 2: "Watts Tower"[/caption] [caption id="attachment_6242" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Upcycled Art Watts Tower Detail Figure 3: "Watts Tower" Detail[/caption] Joseph Cornell was also famous for upcycling materials for his art: using found objects to create shadow boxes. Fascinated with the concept of using objects (photographs, ornaments and books) that were once beautiful and valuable, he liked to give them new life in his own works so that they could be appreciated once again. [caption id="attachment_6243" align="aligncenter" width="236"]Upcycled Art Joseph Cornell Figure 4: Joseph Cornell's "Compartments"[/caption] Others have used upcycling in art as a political statement. For instance, Romuald Hazoumé of Benin in West Africa, used disused plastic fuel canisters to make traditional African masks. His political statement being: "I send back to the West that which belongs to them, that is to say, the refuse of consumer society that invades us every day.”[i] Nowadays, however, most artists use upcycling in art as a conduit to comment on environmental issues, preferring to turn to the bin rather than purchasing new materials. This is beneficial in two ways: the artists save money as well as benefitting the environment. This statement aims to help individuals understand that we can all upcycle different materials to create art of our own. For instance, David Irvine has been going to charity shops and painting over old canvases that no one will buy in order to create new works of art, which he now sells with added value on Etsy. Many people are now getting crafty and turning to salvaged wood, old comic books and records, tiles and many other materials in order to create pieces for their own homes, to give them a truly unique and original décor without impacting on the environment or harming their bank balances. Upcycling has thus become popular in both mainstream art and personal/artisan art, each individual choosing to use old materials for their own reasons – regardless of the reason, creating extraordinary pieces that will forever be unique due to their origin.


  [i] (Anon., ‘The Richard Mutt Case’, Blind Man, New York, no.2, May 1917, p.5 [ii] Romuald Hazoumé"Contemporary African Art Collection - The Pigozzi Collection.

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