Much More Than Rubbish: A Conversation with Calder Kamin

by Caleb Bell October 18, 2022
Photo of the artist with her dog

Calder Kamin and Pixel. Photo by Essentials Creative.

The old idiom “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” takes on a whole new meaning after experiencing one of Austin-based Calder Kamin’s works of art. Constructed out of discarded scraps and recycled products, Kamin’s sculptures of flora and fauna showcase the possibilities of reuse while questioning our relationship with the planet and its future.

A graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute, Kamin has been awarded numerous artist-in-residence opportunities throughout the United States over the years, allowing her to host community workshops and educate others about repurposing. Her work has been included extensively in solo and group exhibitions, including the recent exhibition Nothing Goes to Waste at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft. Furthering her commitment to reuse, Kamin also volunteers and serves on the board of Austin Creative Reuse, a nonprofit organization that diverts community waste to creatives as resources. 

Kamin and I recently had an opportunity to discuss some of her recent residencies and projects, along with a few things she has in the works for the future.

Photo of a white unicorn head made of upcycled plastics

Calder Kamin, “Upcycled Unicorn,” 2022. Photo by Essentials Creative

Caleb Bell (CB): For those who might not be familiar with your work, can you please describe it in your own words?

Calder Kamin (CK): When someone asks about my art, my initial reply is that “I make animals out of garbage.”

To go into greater detail, I make fantastical friends for a living. I let my inner child – who was obsessed with mythical creatures, environmentalism, and miyazaki movies – take the wheel. Much like my namesake, Alexander Calder, I relish in material exploration and play. Taking time to be still in nature after time in undergrad and doing things like observing bird behavior had a profound impact on the materials I choose to use in my work. After watching mother birds build architecture for the next generation out of trash they gleaned nearby, I thought I need to be more like a bird. 

Canines are my current muse. Most people who know me know my pet, Pixel. Dogs would not exist if humans didn’t make trash. We are the only animals that expel waste that isn’t absorbed into new energy or life. Wolves made friends with humans, and we gained a companion, hunting party, alarm system, and clean up crew. This friendship is one of the major reasons why Homo sapiens triumphed over Neanderthals in the evolution race. My canines come from a future world full of hybrid flora and fauna intricately made out of vibrantly colored plastic. Something major happened on earth, but nature returned. 

I do my best to transform the trash and spotlight the craft techniques I use to make my elaborate animals. My materials are humble and so are my methods. I am also exploring the use of textile waste and recycled glass with my upcoming residency at SiNaCa Studios. 

Humans transformed nature to make our lives more convenient, only to leave a massive mess for the next generation. What are the steps to solve this crisis? My contribution for radical change is to shift society’s perception of trash. A majority of my artworks include public interactions about environmental stewardship or creative reuse. I also serve on the board of Austin Creative Reuse to inform my community about the circular economy, and I help fundraise for other reuse centers in Texas. 

Ruth Asawa started the first creative reuse center in the Bay Area. I follow in her legacy. Through art, education, and an enduring optimism, I am out to empower others to see potential in by-product materials and themselves.

Photo of an animal head made of upcycled plastics on a wall

Calder Kamin, “Ultra Violet Vixen,” 2020. Photo by Essentials Creative.

CB: Can you tell me more about what a creative reuse center is? What do they offer their communities?

CK: The first creative reuse center, from my understanding, began because founders Anne Marie Theilen, a Bay Area educator, and Ruth Asawa, wanted to better the public school arts curriculum with the introduction of material studies. Ruth’s Black Mountain/Bauhaus education made her a fervent advocate for material studies. They began with collecting items from the community, mostly cardboard. The demand for more materials and community interest in redistributing waste for art education grew into SCRAP.

There are now Scraps all over the US. I’ve been to ScrapsKC, Art from Scrap in Santa Barbara, and Who Gives a Scrap in Colorado Springs. Some centers, like Austin Creative Reuse, focus on retail and donations. We take items that Goodwill won’t, but that might still hold value for an artist, educator, or maker. In fact, we divert 70,000 pounds from the landfill a month in Austin. 70k! Some centers do that in a year. We also provide programming, which we hope to grow now that we’ve recovered from the pandemic. In 2020, I launched our online first reuse market and fundraised $6,000 for sick leave. These folks are my family. The Welman project in Fort Worth collects materials for teachers and gives it away for free. They took really good care of me during my residency in Fort Worth at American Landmark Apartments. The Welman recently opened a retail space for the public, provides camps for kids, and is working on a maker space. 

Donna J. Haraway writes about how we live on a damaged planet and says communities looking after one another is our survival plan. Governments and corporations failed us with a massive plastic mess. I believe creative reuse, or the circular economy, is a powerful tool for healing. Much like my art, it can’t happen without the help of the community and their donations. Now that I’m back in Austin for the fall, I volunteer five hours a week at the center. I also spread the word with all of my programs and connect cultural institutions to their local reuse center. They are a valuable resource that I want everyone to get excited about!

CB: Since you mentioned being back in Austin for the fall, I wanted to discuss some of the many residencies and projects that have taken you elsewhere this year. Let’s start with you being named one of the Amon Carter Museum’s 2022 Carter Community Artists. Can you share a little bit about the experience? What have you gotten to do with The Carter and the Fort Worth community?

CK: So far, we’ve collaborated on workshops for spring break, which were projects for The Welman highlighting the story of color and jewelry techniques. I attended the last party on the porch. In October, I will lead an adult workshop and a workshop for Autistic and sensory sensitive youth. Occasionally, they ask us to write about works of art in the collection or for their periodical.

During my post as artist-in-residence at the Shelby Northside apartments, I provided weekly workshops for the residents of the 300 unit complex. Jewelry making and repair was the most popular workshop. I attended classes at SiNaCa and recently found out I’m their next resident artist. I will collaborate with the staff on flame work projects and will use recycled glass in my art. We will work together on a public demo in March. Love Texas Art Studios in Fort Worth will also exhibit a few pieces in their new gallery.

The next residency on the books is the Currier Museum in Manchester, New Hampshire for a 12 week residency.

CB: When does the Currier Museum residency begin? What are your plans while you are there?

CK: It will take place April 23 through July 16, 2023. We still need to formalize the details, but I was really interested in their community programming centered on wellness for young refugees, vets, teens, and adults with developmental disabilities. I will continue to connect with circular economy leaders, encourage creative reuse, and explore a new body of work. 

After a couple of experiences exhibiting with children’s museums, I realize I have a lot of work to do if I want to be effective in these spaces. My work needs to be a lot more interactive and encourage touch. I am working on a Cryptozoology Petting Zoo with my friend Jacob Reptile, Director at Aquarium Gallery in NOLA, where I had a residency in May, for young, blind, or sensory-sensitive visitors to enjoy. I would like to pilot some of my contributions during Currier programs.

Sculpture of a unicorn made of up-cycled plastics

Calder Kamin, “Once Upon a Time in the Future,” 2022. Photo courtesy of the Artist.

CB: After your residency at the Aquarium Gallery in May, you were a resident artist at Breckenridge Creative Arts in Colorado this summer. What projects did you work on there?

CK: Breckenridge Creative Arts and the city of Breckenridge recently adopted goals to lower emissions and plastic waste. Breck Create now owns a Precious Plastic Machine, a tool I hope to own soon and use for an upcoming permanent art project in Austin. The PP machine is a personal recycling tool you can either purchase or build yourself, since the blueprint is open source. It is also part of a utopian off-grid society in Europe. Breck Create is already collecting community waste and has replaced their wood shop with a PP machine that will mill beams and sheets that they can use like plywood or 2x4s. They were seeking a recycling artist to get the community excited about the new initiative and commissioned an outdoor piece for the annual arts festival. 

While I was there, I provided weekly workshops for the public to papier-mâché toadstools, which I installed with my outdoor sculpture. In less than six weeks, I built a full-sized unicorn from scratch. There is a famous troll in Breck, and thought there must be other mythical beasts in the forests. 

Four hundred pounds of one day’s worth of misprints was donated by the county paper. I papier-mâchéd that over to-go boxes, plastic packaging, soda bottles, toilet paper rolls and Folgers Coffee cans. Then, I added two layers of cement and grouted Mardi Gras beads into a floral motif. My real-sized My Little Pony has a long magenta mane and tail, custom glass eyes, and butterfly wings made from broken plastic sleds. 

During my stint in NOLA, I was contemplating a plastic that could withstand the intense mountain UV light. Breck Create wanted a plastic outdoor sculpture, but plastic photodegrades quickly. Lo and behold, strung over my head in the French Quarter were thousands of beads. I saw that they hold up their integrity and shape, but the patina would change to silver, black or gold over time. I thought I could work with this. To my surprise and detail, I found there is a connection to Mardi Gras beads in Breckenridge. Visitors often throw them onto trees from the ski lifts, making a mess in the local forest. 

The unicorn, titled Once Upon a Time in the Future, was installed for the Breckenridge International Festival of Arts in August on Moonstone Trail. The spot I selected was next to a tree covered in beads. It was meant to be. I also discovered little speckled mushrooms that matched my community-made, Mario-inspired shrooms. It rained every afternoon during the summer, so toward the end of my residency, you could find mushrooms everywhere.

I took advantage of being in a beautiful place by going for regular hikes with Pixel. I could take classes and use the other art studios, free range. I loved working with the torch in the glass and metal studio. I made glass eyes for my animals. Now I have the opportunity to keep exploring these materials with SiNaCa. 

My travels have opened my world and I’ve been embraced by so many new friends. I have even reconnected with folks from my past as I traveled across the states to my next destination. As soon as I’m in a new place, I try to make connections, find the reuse center, and introduce and familiarize myself with my new neighbors. I’m planting metaphorical seeds to build connections. 

CB: You mentioned the local newspaper in Breckenridge donating misprints to your project, which has me thinking more about your materials and where they come from. When you are traveling and the city does not have a creative reuse center, how do you source materials?

CK: I brought about 10 gallons of mardi gras beads with me that I collected from NOLA, The Welman Project, and Austin Creative Reuse. When I realized that wasn’t enough to cover the unicorn, Austin Creative Reuse mailed me a box. Breck Create also serendipitously found a box of beads that make up the mane and tail, which were leftover from an event. I exhaust what is available before ever buying new. Before Breck Create found the box of beads, I considered other materials like marker caps, which could be drilled and strung together. I even considered foraging for beads from the pines near the gondolas. Either way would mean a lot more work, so I’m glad they found the extra box. I turned the marker caps into beads for a necklace workshop after my install. 

Being in the mountains was a real challenge for finding construction materials and adhesives. I would have to drive miles to make it to the next hardware store and items were always low or out of stock. Mail would get lost. My projects and I seem to thrive a little more in a city. I will keep this in mind with future residences. 

I am very proud of the incredible trash picker community I’ve established in central Texas. I worked for the city for a couple of years when I returned home to Austin in 2014 and was quickly plugged into municipal resources. The Economic Development department hosts an annual pitch competition for circular economy businesses, called Reverse Pitch. I would always work the event, which provided the opportunity to connect with several local entrepreneurs and nonprofits who always have an eye out for me. There is a local vinyl record press company that keeps their press waste for me; I now make them flowers with the record flash as a product for the holidays. I learned about all the decommission offices for schools and bureaucracies, as well as who cleans up and finds a home for SXSW’s leftovers through a nonprofit that waived my membership to their directory of circular economy partners. They would even email me when they found something I needed. Austin Resource Recovery had a staff member who would sort art materials out of the landfill for artists to pick up for free. I didn’t have to buy spray paint for years. Learning all of these groups exist here, I’m able to be clear about my needs when visiting a new place and have suggestions for who we can source from locally. 

After I saw the Nikki Saint De Phalle show at the Menil, a lightbulb went off. I could papier-mâché the unicorn and cover it in cement. I added junk mail and newspapers to my materials list when prepping with Breck Create. The rest was timing. A few minutes after I arrived at the Breck Create office, a man walked into the office where I was signing paperwork. He said “Someone needed newspapers?” Laughing, I said  “Yes, that would be me.” He said he had 400 pounds of misprints he was driving to the dump before he heard about a visiting artist needing a lot of paper. I’m always reminded there is still a lot of magic in the world and a lot of trash.

I am also forever grateful to the volunteers at Austin Creative Reuse, my friends, and followers who collect for me. I do the same in return for other reuse artists friends, like Virginia Fleck. I’m always looking; always seeking. I know where the good trash is.

Photo of a young person looking over a railing at an installation by Calder Kamin

Installation view of “Dream Tomorrow Today” at The DoSeum in 2018. Photo courtesy of The DoSeum, San Antonio.

CB: As an advocate for Earth and the environment, what do you ultimately hope participants in your workshops take away? What message do you hope is impressed upon viewers of your work?

CK: Taking time to be still in nature transformed me as an artist. I had always made animals in clay. I began with polymer sculpty before getting a degree in ceramics and art history from the Kansas City Art Institute. After undergrad, I took up birding. I took my hobby a little more seriously and was introduced to local citizen science bird counts, as well as crowdsourcing apps like ebird and ibird, which I would later use for my first museum education programs. As I became more aware of the local and visiting birds’ colors, calls, and behaviors, the thing that stood out was seeing the female birds reuse materials; this revelation hit me hard. 

Trash is a man-made cultural problem of the modern West. Humans in other countries or times reused everyday. After this realization, clay suddenly felt like an arbitrary way to sculpt animals. It would be another couple of years before I made a plastic fox, but, in the meantime, I collaborated with birds on a few projects. We were aware of climate change and pollution long before I was born, but our obsession with petroleum products has only increased. In the last 20 years, we’ve doubled the plastic mass. We are in a crisis. These overwhelming thoughts can make you freeze, but this was my chance to change, and I believe we all can.

Now, the work is accessible to all ages. My materials and methods are humble. I only use a hot glue gun, crochet needle, wire clippers, and scissors to transform the trash. Can workshop participants see potential in these materials and their abilities and imagination? This is why I work with children, educational museums, and television. I believe in planting seeds. The goal is to shift waste culture in fun and imaginative ways by engaging youth and families. My delivery is very serious but also gentle. I’ve been doing this work since 2013, so I have met several young people who participated in past workshops and have returned to share with me how they’ve become more creative and mindful. 

There is still room to grow my skills and develop the narratives of my installations and sculptures. I’m just getting started. There are no rules for found object making. It’s all about play. Right now, I’m still in an experimental phase. I hope everyone can see how much I enjoy making my work and that my pieces stand alone as beautiful, well-crafted objects. Speaking directly with my audiences about reuse resources and stewardship is still a necessary companion to sharing the message of my creations.


This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

0 comment

You may also like

Leave a Comment

Funding generously provided by: