Waste not, want not


Department of Visual Arts graduates Sara Black, MFA’06, and John Preus, MFA’05, are building an artists’ collective out of trash. Working with University of Chicago and School of the Art Institute alumni, Black and Preus last year launched Material Exchange, which recycles cast-off materials from museums, theaters, and other cultural institutions and transforms them into tables and chairs, light fixtures, futons, and bookcases. The artists donate the finished products to charitable organizations. “We’re interested in the way materials move through the world,” says Black, “how the value of a thing shifts in varying contexts, and why our culture allows material obsolescence to occur so quickly.”

Based in Hyde Park, Material Exchange grew out of a Smart Museum internship Black did last summer, when Austrian artist collective WochenKlausur held a three-week residency as part of Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art. That exhibit demonstrated the ability to make useful objects from waste materials, and Black and Preus volunteered with the artists to build a table and set of stools for Deborah’s Place, a Chicago women’s shelter. They also helped create two databases: one of local cultural organizations that generate leftover materials and another of charities in need of durable goods.

Last fall the two enlisted local art schools’ help with one of Material Exchange’s first projects. Using leftovers from the $8,000 set of Court Theatre’s production of the August Wilson play Fences, students at the Illinois Institute of Technology built a reading loft and library shelves for Hyde Park’s Chicago Child Care Society.

“Objects and materials have a history that effectively ends when they enter the landfill,” Preus says. “We are certainly interested in reimagining and reusing these materials for environmental and social reasons, but also as a way to investigate questions that revolve around surplus and entropy. What a thing is includes the history of its fabrication and the functions and stories that keep it alive as a vital element in the world.”

Jennifer Carnig

Photos: Illinois Institute of Technology students built a reading loft (top) and library shelves (bottom) for Hyde Park’s Chicago Child Care Society.

June 28, 2006