When visiting the Metro Central transfer station, artist Malia Jensen has to be ready for anything.
On a slow day, she watches discarded objects come and go, like tidal waves in a sea of things. When the transfer station really jumps, she has to jump in and grab what she needs before it gets swept away quickly.
Jensen says the transfer station experience is intense, seeing so many “objects in crisis” as she describes them. “There’s so much broken stuff out there,” Jensen said. “I’m torn by a compulsion to try to redeem this discarded thing.”
Jensen is one of five artists chosen for Metro’s GLEAN program. Each year, artists are invited to create art from discarded objects and materials found at the Metro Central transfer station.
The program was created in 2010 as a partnership between Metro; Recology, the waste management company that operates Metro Central; and Cracked Pots, a nonprofit that focuses on art and waste reduction. GLEAN brings attention to litter in Greater Portland and aims to inspire people to think differently about the things we throw away.
For artist Caryn Aasness, the experience with GLEAN corresponds to their previous work exploring hoarding and the relationships of people to objects. Even throwing things away, Aasness sees a connection.
“When you see someone pull up in a giant truck full of stuff that is clearly not their own, and they just throw it away with very little attention to the objects, you can still feel that grip that they had, these items had, on the person who kept them, ”Aasness says.
Many GLEAN artists spoke about the lives of people they could see from the garbage to the landfill. The entirety of an ex-girlfriend’s possessions, entire households of items from a sudden move or the death of a loved one – stories of many people scattered together.
Artists use these objects and materials found at Metro Central to talk about ideas related to ecology, resource conservation, gender roles, and cultural genocide.
Artist Jessica (Tyner) Mehta first describes herself as a poet. She transforms her work into sculptural pieces. Mehta’s installation will focus on residential schools, white supremacist institutions that separated Indigenous children and adolescents from their families and forced them to abandon their language and culture.
Mehta’s father was a survivor of one of these schools. Investigations have revealed numerous cases of abuse and death of Native American children at the hands of school administrators.
“I wrote a poem especially for GLEAN and related to these residential assimilation and extermination camps,” Mehta says. The poem will be attached to large pieces of painted building foundation.
“Ideally, they’ll be on elevators when they’re on display,” Mehta says. “While we have to be faced with this, it is a truth that we have collectively buried and brought to… literal light so that we can have a conversation about it. “
Artist Willie Little uses his art to speak the truth as he sees it. Its multimedia assemblies tackle heavy subjects, such as racism and social justice. For the GLEAN show, Little took a new direction. He found toys from his childhood – Barbie dolls, dollhouses and accessories, etc.
“The title of the whole work is called Misfit Toys, Gender Roles of my Youth,” Little says. He likes to bring playfulness to his work. “He has a sense of humour. He winks and nods. But it’s still something about my personal truth, about my history as a young gay black man from the rural south. “
Many artists have used objects found in their previous work. Little says decomposition is a common theme in his work and that he often incorporates period memories. Artist Colin Kippen regularly took objects from free piles and incorporated them into his sculptures.
Going from an occasional free stack to a mountain of spinning stuff was a struggle for some artists. Kippen described sifting through free piles as meditative, to stop and think about the value of things he encountered.
He said going to Metro Central was like drinking from a fire hose, drowning in a flood of potential art. “There are things that I see that I know people can use, so I think that’s the emotionally heavy part of it,” Kippen says.
GLEAN artists address these challenges by removing discarded objects and giving them new meaning, new life and new stories.
“The abundant nature of it is amazing,” says Kippen. “It doesn’t take much to figure out a way to make nice things with the stuff people throw away. It excites me, the ability to cope with what people don’t want. “