Trash to Treasure by Jillian Goldberg

Figures made from scrap wire, purchased in Cape Town

Living in Western society today, we are constantly reminded of the dangers of polluting and destroying our environment with not only carbon emissions but also the simple detritus of everyday life. Plastic bags, bottles, and more clog our waterways and oceans, proving hazardous and often fatal to creatures of forest, sea, and air. There are many art installations which focus on these problems: sculptures and constructions and wall art made up of bottle caps, cans, rubber bands, machine parts, all the actual trash we discard, on display for the viewer. There seem to be fewer works however, that utilize trash but transform the humble prosaic elements into things of beauty, which the viewer can enjoy as a beautiful piece, one which is not preaching, shaming or in service to any political or cultural agenda.

Social cooperatives in many poverty- ridden regions in Africa have succeeded admirably in recent years in harnessing ubiquitous trash to create beautiful and useful objects, such as purses and vessels woven from telephone wire, tin cans, plastic bags, and old magazines amongst others. Many of us in the US and Europe have marveled at the extraordinary large-scale assemblages created in the workshops of El Anatsui, a Ghanaian sculptor working in Nigeria.

Trash Shrine Sample

Recently I attended a workshop at Springmaid Mountain near Spruce Pine in North Carolina. There were many enjoyable and playful projects around the new fluid acrylics, mediums and “interference” paints. The last project turned out to be the most interesting one for me, as I love collage and love a challenge. With an hour left of class time, our instructor told us to dig through our trash and find anything we thought we could use in a “trash shrine.” Her inspiration had been trips to Mexico where she saw many roadside shrines, often with bright colors and shiny surfaces. Grabbing and slapping together textures, colors, and shapes, painting the glued down design with loose, watery washes, dipping the brush into paints intuitively, and letting them run and mix on the surface, created unexpected success. I have enjoyed making more of these “shrines,” so-called because of the basically cruciform composition, although my trash at home has not yielded the colorful wrappers from candy consumed during the workshop!

Another Trash Shrine sample

I find a rigid surface such as wood panel, to be best for collage where one wants to apply pressure to adhere objects. Ampersand makes great panels of all sizes, with different width cradles and different surfaces. I used heavy matte gel to glue, and Golden Liquid Acrylics to paint. So far, I have five “shrines” in series and hope to make more.  What to call the series? Someone has suggested “Detrartus,” art from detritus. What do you think?

For inspiration and great techniques, look at the two books by Mary Todd Beam, published by North Light. Mary is eighty-six years old now, but she continues to create powerful works using her trademark mixed media style and personal symbolism.

See my art at and follow me on Facebook/Jillian Goldberg Art and on Instagram /jillzgoldberg