5 Times Artists Turned Old Trash into New Art

You know the old saying, “One person’s trash is an Artist’s blank canvas” 

Most days, the planet feels like a dumpster fire. Most days, it’s hard to feel like we’re doing enough to protect planet earth, even when we’re doing our part to reduce, reuse, recycle...and all that jazz.

But in anticipation of National Recycling Day on November 15, we started thinking of all the times in Meow Wolf history that artists have taken something old, rundown and/or unused and made it new. ♻️

In fact, for those who haven’t been with us since our humble beginnings or traveled to our OG location in Santa Fe, New Mexico, you might not know that the very first permanent Meow Wolf exhibition was actually created inside of what used to be Silva Lanes. With the initial help of George R.R. Martin, we knocked down the last remaining 7-10 split and filled 20,000 square feet of dilapidated space with immersive, mind-bending art.

And while we’ve toyed around with the idea of returning to our roots, we just can’t give up the art.

1. Meow Wolf Las Vegas’ SaveArtSpace Collaboration

The billboard features two African-American women. To the left is a young girl in a yellow dress, seated on a light brown sofa. Her hair is in two pigtails and her head is resting on her left arm. In her right hand, she holds a purple stuffed animal that hangs by her feet. The artwork to the right is an older woman. Her hair and dangling earrings are both white, creating a stark contrast with her skin. Her head is tilted to the right and she’s looking off to the side of the image.
“Wait for a Smile” [left] and “White Noise” [right] by Q’Shaundra James. Photo by Christopher DeVargas

Meow Wolf Las Vegas’ partnership with SaveArtSpace was certainly one of the biggest collabs we’ve done to date! Since 2015, SaveArtSpace has helped feature 399 artists on 696 advertising spaces in 35+ US cities coast to coast, now including Las Vegas! Their mission to support and spotlight local artists gelled perfectly with ours, so it was a match made in heaven.

Through this partnership, Meow Wolf Las Vegas was able to showcase the work of 10 local artists from September 17 to October 10, 2021 on billboards across the Las Vegas valley.

Meow Wolf Las Vegas’ Program & Outreach Manager, Christy Sakamoto, was sure to emphasize that “this will not be the last time we support artists in such a grand way,” so be on the lookout for more opportunities like this!

2. Meow Wolf Las Vegas’ E-Waste Sculpture

Meow Wolf Las Vegas team members join artist Luis Varela-Rico to pose for a photo next to Pikai at its unveiling
Unveiling of Pikai at the Meow Wolf Las Vegas on October 14, 2021[left] Robin Slonina, Artist Liason at Meow Wolf Las Vegas[center] Luis Varela-Rico, Sculptor & Artist behind Pikai [right] Fawn Douglas, Cultural Engagement Specialist at Meow Wolf

Let’s be honest. We’ve all got an old BlackBerry or iPod Touch laying around that we SWEAR we might use someday...despite the fact that it hasn’t turned on since 2012.

The computer that’s in the garage that you just need to “take to Best Buy so the Geek Squad can see what’s wrong with it,” isn’t getting any younger, so why don’t we stop fooling ourselves?

The old electronics have got to go — we know better than to throw them in a dumpster destined for a landfill — but who has the time to figure out where they’re supposed to go?

To encourage Nevadans to finally dispose of their e-waste (basically anything that has a plug), Meow Wolf Las Vegas teamed up with Goodwill of Southern Nevada to support their e-waste drive at AREA15.

The sculptor, Luis, is going through a large box of recycled e-waste. He holds in his hand a laptop keyboard cover. Behind him are boxes piled high and wrapped in plastic filled with recycled goods and electronics.
Luis Varela-Rico at the Goodwill of Southern Nevada warehouse sifting through donated e-waste to add to his sculpture. Photo by Robin Slonina

We tapped local artist Luis Varela-Rico to create a sculpture, appropriately named “Pikai: Saving the Earth from E-Waste,” made entirely of donated electronic waste provided by Goodwill of Southern Nevada.

image of a tortoise sitting proudly outside of AREA15, where Meow Wolf Las Vegas is located. The tortoisee has legs made of hundreds of computer keys, its face is made of circular button cell batteries often found in watches and its back is covered in wires and motherboards.
Pikai is the Paiute name for desert tortoise which also means: the Leader, still the same, still here, standing up for what's right.

“This project speaks to me because I am conscious of how human convenience is damaging our planet in irreparable ways,” says Varela-Rico.

For more information on recycling in your own neighborhood, Google “Electronic waste recycling near me.”

3. Meow Wolf Santa Fe’s Trash Temple

a wide image of a colorful room filled with shiny objects. With closer inspection, you can see the walls are adorned with bottle caps, the bottoms of cans and other recyclable waste to create what feels like a circular shrine in the center of the room
Trash Temple by Corinne Loperfido at House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

If you’ve had the glorious opportunity to visit our original location, Meow Wolf Santa Fe, you may be familiar with this installation, appropriately named Trash Temple.

Trash Temple is an immersive space of worship constructed from collected recyclable items that may have otherwise ended up in a landfill.

“This installation is an apology letter to the earth,” says artist Corinne Loperfido.

Trash temple is proof that even everyday waste is not wasted.

Loperfido, traveling artist and founder of the feminist interactive arts group Pussy Power House, collaborated with Damon Willaims to create pieces made of bottle caps, CDs, coffee cans, single-use nail salon flip flops, and an assemblage of discarded Elmo dolls.

Colorful caps fill the photo. Small bottle caps lay inside of larger caps and are surrounded by the circular plastic seal found around bottles that breaks once opened.
Used bottle caps are recycled into art. Photo courtesy of Corine Loperfido

TV screens fill the walls, flat soda cans complete the ceiling, a tickle me Elmo pokes out from a frame, and ornate bottle caps form an intricate mosaic on the ground that can withstand the hundreds of visitors Meow Wolf sees each day.

The floor alone actually took five people to install over the course of two weeks, but that certainly beats the lifetime that this waste would otherwise spend in a landfill.

Next time you’re in Santa Fe, be sure to sit upon the throne of headboards and plastic bottle lids.

4. Meow Wolf Denver’s Gremlin Symphony

Gremlin Symphony inside of Convergence Station by Matt King. Photo by Kate Russell

We’ve always said that old street signs and traffic lights make for great art. Gremlin Symphony at Meow Wolf’s Convergence Station in Denver is proof that we were right all along.

Meow Wolf artist and co-founder, Matt King, and musician and fabricator Meason Wiley turned a mess into a musical masterpiece that plays itself every few minutes as travelers walk through the space. The trash and signs used in Gremlin Symphony were sourced from Denver, specifically in the neighborhood of Sun Valley, where Meow Wolf is located!

An image of a dark, empty room with the light falling on a piano, on its side, with the keys facing the ground. The top from the piano has been removed so that the iron and brass are visible. Surrounding the piano are cords and a computer is open as artists and fabricators work on programming it to play autonomously.
Gremlin Symphony Piano while in fabrication at the Catapillar Building in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Photo by Kate Russell

“Matt King and I, along with members of the Meow Wolf Art Team, started the salvage collection for Gremlin back in the Spring of 2018, using various salvage yards throughout New Mexico, as well as Denver,” said Wiley. “The room is the result of 3.5 years of internal collaboration and is a project that many of us feel is fundamentally representative of who we are - our collaborative spirit, our heart, and our love for one another.”

A close-up photo of a full drum set including cymbals that play themselves. The drums are attached to the wall and are surrounded by old trash and street signs like ‘3950 Patton Ct.’ and ‘speed limit 25’
Aerial view of the drums that hang from the wall in Gremlin Symphony

Meason Wiley is a certified sound genius. He programmed Gremlin Symphony to play on its own and envisions a future where guest performers visit and program their own musical pieces for Gremlin Symphony to play.

In addition to Gremlin Symphony, Wiley is the creator of the haunted windchimes in Numina — inside of Convergence Station — as well as the sound and music for Omega Mart’s Pulse and the Dramcorp Factory.

Instruments created from and surrounded by trash? It’s the visual representation of waste being rebuilt and reused to make something better than the original.

5. Meow Wolf’s ETHYL the Whale

ETHYL the Whale being constructed. The large whale is missing portions in the center as artists climb ladders to add the finishing touches.
ETHYL the Whale is made of recycled plastic. "ETHYL" is short for PolyETHYLene, one of the most common plastics. Photo by Kate Russell

In April 2019, Meow Wolf partnered with Santa Fe Community College & Building180 to raise plastic awareness for Earth Day. For artists Yustina Salnikova and Joel Dean Stockdill, ETHYL the Whale was not just a labor of love, but a harsh reality about how we humans are destroying our own planet.

ETHYL is an 82-foot long whale sculpture made from recycled plastic that forces consumers to ask themselves, “At what cost do we continue to create these products and dispose of them improperly?”

Why a whale? Because the weight of a blue whale (about 300,000 pounds) is poured into the ocean every NINE minutes in the form of garbage and unrecycled waste.

“This world is filled with magic and our trash is filled with opportunity,” Salnikova says.

The plastic used to create ETHYL the Whale represents one person’s plastic trash by age 20. Photo by Kate Russell

Sometimes people ask why we use trash to make art instead of recycling it, but realistically only about 9% of plastic actually gets recycled. By using discarded trash and transforming it into art, we give waste a chance to transform us and the way we think about recycling as well as our destructive habits as humans.

ETHYL the Whale is bathed in green light as it sits on the college’s campus
ETHYL the Whale now permanently resides on the Santa Fe Community College campus. Photo by Kate Russell

ETHYL now lives on the Santa Fe Community College campus (and has a 4.8 rating on Google?), so add it to your list of sights to see while in our home state.

*steps down off of soapbox*

Alright, we know it’s a lot to take in and we know that we can’t get to zero waste tomorrow, but we do hope that you’ll look at that plastic water bottle at the store a little differently next time. Or maybe not at all?

To learn more about how to reduce your waste contribution, there are nifty articles and even songs about reusable cups and composting to get you into the recycling spirit.

If you’ve got questions or want to hear more about how you can take better care of Mother Earth, you know where to find us!  

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