Chicago artists want your help turning Austin’s plastic waste into public benches

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Can trash become a tool to transform the Austin community?

Tom Burtonwood and Cody Norman, co-founders of the Austin-based art studio Happy Returns, propose an art project that invites residents to transform litter into public furniture.

In partnership with the artist-led nonprofit alt_Chicago, they’ll launch the art project Redemptive Plastics Saturday at 4 p.m. at 5339 W. Lake St.

Earlier this year, they were awarded a $65,000 grant by E(art)H Chicago, a program of the Illinois Science and Energy Innovation Foundation that’s funding 11 community art projects across the city.

“We’re going to actually make functional plastic objects,” Norman said in an interview with AustinTalks. “Furniture objects, specifically, that people in the community can engage with.”

Norman said Alt_Chicago and Happy Returns wanted to collaborate since the two artist groups met at the building that houses their art studios.

Burtonwood said their art studio had thought about “trying to divert plastics from the waste stream,” while alt_Chicago had held community clean-up events. When they heard about the E(art)H Chicago opportunity, they thought this would be “the perfect project.”

“The first sign of disinvestment is often visible in the form of trash,” Dr. Curry Greene, COO of Alt_Chicago, said in the project statement shared with E(art)H Chicago. “Redemptive Plastics endeavors to invest in our communities by using what has been discarded as a tool for teaching.”

It is not the first time alt_Chicago seeks to change the narrative about Austin. In 2019, founders Jon Veal and Jordan Campbell captured and displayed residents’ photographs as part of Project Stamp. This time, they’re collaborating with Happy Returns artists to turn trash into “community assets.”

To do so, they will hire residents to collect, sort, wash and break down discarded plastics. A bench will take approximately 125 pounds of plastic that will not go into the waste stream, Burtonwood said.

While the initial idea is to build plastic benches, Burtonwood said they want residents to explore their own ideas and learn from each other.

“We’re going to bring in all these creative people from the community. So with all that kind of creativity, who knows what we might end up making?” Burtonwood said. “I think there’s lots of possibilities for things that we can make out of plastic.”

“You never want to be this artist that’s telling people what they want,” Norman added.

Anyone who is interested in environmental justice, recycling or making their community better is invited to join Saturday’s event, where they’ll learn more about the project and how they can collaborate.

“I think everybody is an artist. Everybody has imagination and creativity. I hope that we will create an environment and a space where people will feel welcome, Burtonwood said. “And where they can come and learn some things.”

To register for the event Redemptive Plastics: The Gathering, click here.

To learn more about E(art)H Chicago’s community art projects, click here.

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