Garbage, art, and fashion

Posted by Yaffa Chaya on

Have you ever tried to fit an entire billboard advertisement inside the living room / kitchen of a New York City apartment?

It's not quite possible - and it didn't occur to me until it was too late exactly how much bird poop would be involved.

About ten thousand tons of billboard material, which is made out of plastic / vinyl, is trashed every year in the US. I sourced a fraction of this to upcycle into tote bags. 

In support of this project I was awarded a City Artist Corps grant, as well as given space at Regeneration at Artist & Fleas Williamsburg for a live activation. The CAC grants were awarded across NYC to support working artists.

For my project, I decided to create tote bags and embroider on them live at Regeneration, working with LGBTQIA+ and political themes, using humor to talk about waste, queer identity, and community. 

I anticipated many obstacles to this project but perhaps underestimated the impact giving birth would have on my output. Still, I persisted, working out of my home studio space while providing majority childcare to my baby as my partner is a medical school student.

Machine embroidery is a process necessitating quite a bit of design. I start off with an idea or sketch, which I then take into digital software such as Procreate to simplify. Much like certain printmaking processes, it's best to reduce the number of colors used. I then bring my final design into Hatch Embroidery, a process I have often compared to creating a model to 3D print. It is in this software that I decide direction and order of stitches.

A major help to this project was my friend and colleague Ezra Jude, who is no stranger to converting trash into fashion as he is a drag queen and eco artist.

Embroidering onto vinyl is no easy feat. Surprisingly, the material ended up being similar to leather in that you are basically punching holes that do not respond with much flexibility. A knit or denim almost closes in around its own holes, but leather and vinyl are less forgiving. As a primarily self taught textile artist, there was a steep learning curve. 

For two days, I embroidered live at Regeneration to demonstrate my craft and give away transformed tote bags which participants could keep. Regeneration is a vintage clothing market featuring used clothing sellers as well as upcyclers. 

Since this project, I have developed a growing interest in upcycled materials and the waste created by consumeristic tendencies to overproduce beyond demand and to treat noncompostable objects as disposable. I joined my local Buy Nothing group, which is where I met Anna Sacks aka The Woman Who Rifles Through New York's Garbage . The objective of Buy Nothing is to"give and receive, share, lend, and express gratitude through a worldwide network of hyper-local gift economies in which the true wealth is the web of connections formed between people who are real-life neighbors."

Anna acquired several Coach bags which had been slashed and trashed by the company. Her activism has led to policy change, but the bags remain. She has offered me two bags to transform.

I will work with drag queen / eco artist Ezra Jude to repair the bags, embroider on them, and turn them into a complete drag look. Throughout my embroidery journey this year I was also fortunate to create a commissioned piece for Johnny Cirillo of Watching New York - when it came time for payment I asked if he could instead photograph our finished piece, to which he agreed.

As an artist, I adore the way one project leads seamlessly to the next. It is the very reason I live in New York City: to meet artists and activists with whom I can create.


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