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Art Takes Off Down the Recycle Runway in New Airport Exhibition

February 19, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

A new art exhibition at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport features clothing made from recycled materials.

The artist, Nancy Judd, an environmental educator with over 20 years of experience in the recycling industry, began her career in art school.

“I watched the garbage can next to the pop machine fill up with cans and that felt wrong to me,” Judd said. “With the blessing of the art school’s administration, I put a recycling bin next to the machine and was wondering what happened to the material and what it got made into.”

Commissioned by companies such as Target, Toyota and the Glass Packaging Institute, Judd spends hundreds of hours making each couture garment from materials including aluminum cans, canvas, crushed glass, paper and reclaimed thread.

She said the airport exhibition includes 14 pieces from her collection representing over ten years of work.

“There’s a dress here which is made from 12,000 pieces of crushed glass that are individually glued to a floor-length evening gown made out of upholstery remnants,” Judd said.

She said the goal of her business, Recycle Runway, is to make garments that attract attention in public venues to the issues of environmental stewardship.

“It’s our everyday, moment-to-moment decisions we make, that have caused the environmental crisis we’re in now and it’s those same moment-to-moment decisions that can help us hopefully move out of this little pickle we’ve gotten ourselves in,” Judd said.

She explained the environmental impact of a simple decision to eat an orange.

“Did you buy it from a big-box store where it was shipped in from Florida or Mexico, or from a local farmer who is keeping the money in your community,” Judd asked. “After you eat it, what do you do with the skin? Do you throw it in the landfill where it sits for as long as 20 years or do you compost it and make it into a valuable nutrient that adds back to the land?”

Judd said she goes into schools to talk with children about environmental awareness.

“I bring dresses made out of aluminum, plastic and paper and I use each garment to talk about recycling”, she said. “I have them write down a pledge on a strip of recycled white office paper stating their name and something they’re going to do, which they haven’t been doing before, to help care for the planet. Those strips of paper are being made into paper link chains that will be sewn to this huge Scarlett O’Hara-style dress. It will be exhibited in the Atlanta airport next year for 12 months.”

Judd isn’t alone in her reliance on recycled materials.

Professional artist Sherrie Zeitlin of Phoenix said money for materials was tight when she started working with K-12 children in schools around Maricopa County 15 years ago.

“What I found was the schools had no money,” Zeitlin said. “I would empower the schools, before I came in, to collect the ribbons and wrapping paper left over from the December holidays, or to collect newspaper, plastic, zippers and even old socks for use in art projects. These materials would be cut up and woven into wall pieces.”

She said this early history was the basis for her 2004 founding of the Art Resource Center.

“I put together a center where I could collect the detritus from industry, corporations and individuals to offer back to any nonprofit organization to be able to make art projects,” Zeitlin said. “It’s all offered free of charge.”

She said she has used recycled materials in her own weaving business making large-scale constructions for architects and interior designers.

“I would go to salvage yards and buy metal and plastic for use in weaving,” she said. “I remember I did a huge weaving for a Dillard’s department store all out of plastic. It looked like a big bride and it went into the lingerie department.”

Zeitlin said the use of recycled materials is a huge trend in the art world.

“It’s a necessity,” she said. “In Feb. 2010, where nobody has any money anymore, it’s a financial issue. ”

“With all the detritus in this world, it’s necessary to just use it up in a different way,” Zeitlin said. “One of the mantras for the Art Resource Center is ‘recycling art worthy materials for creative minds’.”

Lennée Eller, program manager with the Phoenix Airport Museum, said her organization hosts exhibitions by studio artists like Judd and Zeitlin in 25 spaces around the airport system including locations in Terminal 4, Terminal 3, Terminal 2, the rental car facility and even the Deer Valley and Good year airports.

“We showcase the artist’s work through the changing exhibition program for 6 months, then we bring in a new group of work,” Eller said. “The idea is that every artist, gallery and museum has an opportunity to have their work displayed. Over the years it’s been wonderful, because I’ve shown a multitude of diversity.”

Eller said most of the museum’s displays are located outside the security areas for easy access by the airport’s nearly 20,000 employees and 40 million passengers who pass through annually.

“What you see are people who have come early and are getting ready to go down the concourse,” Eller said. “Here’s an interesting secret. If there are a lot of people in line (at the security checkpoint) people will panick and go stand in line. If there are not a lot of people in line, they will stay and go shopping or stop to look at the art.”

Eller said the art draws local residents who are looking for something free to do.

“I have people come and just do the airport tour,” she said. “They come to have coffee and do a walk about just looking at all the shows.”

“We’re the gateway to the state,” said Eller. “It’s really about putting our best foot forward when you’re welcoming people and you want to show them what you’re about.”

Nancy Judd’s Recycle Runway exhibition is on display through Aug. 8 in Terminal 3, Level 2 of the airport next to Starbucks.

Eller said the Phoenix Airport Museum strives to reasonably accommodate people with disabilities who need special assistance accessing exhibitions. They are invited to call 602-273-2105 to set up an appointment.

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