Reduce, reuse, recycle: How one UAA professor is educating students on the art of upcycling

by cmmyers  |   

Herminia Din's Introduction to Art Education class collaborated with local nonprofit Anchorage re:Made to showcase their "junk to funk" art earlier this month. (Photo provided by Alyson Kennard)

"How can we repurpose, reuse and recycle?" asks Herminia Din, an art professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage. "What can art add to the value of the upcycling effort?"

Din is passionate about upcycling and has been involved in many projects campus-wide and in the community to create art, as she describes it, "from junk to funk."

She notes that many northern countries, especially in Scandinavia, are much more resourceful in upcycling old items like chairs, musical instruments or old filing cabinets to breath new life into them. She wants to bring that upcycling philosophy to Alaska and asks, how can we use the "junk" that we already have and repurpose it as functional art in our everyday lives.

That's where her Introduction to Art Education students come in.

From fine art to functional

Each fall Din teaches an Introduction to Art Education class to a group of about 18 students, whose assigned coursework includes a community project. For many years, her class has partnered with the Boys and Girls Club of Alaska to bring art classes to different club locations in the city. This year, she added an additional community project to the course-a collaboration with local nonprofit Anchorage re:Made. The nonprofit operates a storefront in south Anchorage serving a double purpose of selling upcycled creations from local artists, as well as a makerspace for the public to come and learn how to produce their own do-it-yourself creations.

Hockey sticks get a new life as a coat rack.(Photo provided by Alyson Kennard)

The conversation between Din and re:Made started a few years ago, but she took a sabbatical in 2016, and the idea of working together was tabled until this August when she returned to campus.

"We started a conversation about how can we work together and it started with this concept of "junk to funk," Din said. Din and Anchorage re:Made settled on an art event at the end of the semester, produced, marketed and hosted by the Introduction to Art Education students. The event would operate as a fundraiser for Anchorage re:Made, offer students a real-world learning experience on how to put on their own art showcase, and also provide exposure for both the upcycle store and burgeoning artists.

Students were invited to the Anchorage re:Made store about halfway through the semester and then given a few weeks to transform their objects into functional pieces. In addition, Din said she divided the class into two teams: marketing and design, and event coordination-all working toward the same goal of hosting a showcase event in early December.

"This is the first year we'll be working with Anchorage re:Made and this project is not only to apply students' artistic skills, but it's also a challenge for them because they rarely use recycled materials," said Din. "They now have to also keep in mind, besides what am I going to make, what am I going to produce, will this be sellable?"

Din said this project is not just about creating "fine art," but also learning the dynamic between an artist and a buyer, and one of the most important lessons of all: how much is a buyer willing to pay?

Merging philosophies

"It seemed like a win-win for us and for them [UAA]," said Jill Kaniut, community networker at Anchorage re:Made. "I think it was really good exposure for the students and the partnership with UAA was a good fit for us."

Kaniut said the three-year-old nonprofit has been in its storefront location for two years and is run solely by volunteers. She said the concept was conceived by founder and current executive/creative director Patti Buist, whose vision of upcycling household items would help keep couches, chairs, old fabric scraps or table lamps out of the city's landfills. Kaniut said so far their mission has been successful.

"We worked with 26 organizations last year and prevented 10,000 pounds of usable goods from going into the landfill," Kaniut said.  "We're trying to get the word out that this is a place not to just donate things, but to partner with organizations."

Which is where Din's Introduction to Art Education class and Anchorage re:Made's collaboration matched perfectly.

"We share the same concept, which is upcycling-to repurpose and recycle with an artistic touch to it," Din said. "How can we create functional beautiful pieces, all from recycled materials that are already here?" For Din, her students gained a real-world, hands-on experience in creating a sellable art piece and overseeing an art showcase from start to finish. While re:Made had the opportunity to gain more community exposure through the student's art networks and hopefully pick up a few student volunteers along the way.

"We felt like it would be a good opportunity for students who already have a creative interest to see who we are and what we do," said Kaniut. "We hoped they'd catch the vision for what upcycling is-what Anchorage re:Made is."

The showcase

On Thursday, Dec. 7, students from the event coordination team of Din's Introduction to Art Education class rearranged chairs, set up their upcycled art creations and laid out platters of finger food for guests to nibble while perusing their art.

The students had spent the last couple of weeks transforming their "junk" into functional art pieces, showcasing items from old picture frames that were now jewelry holders to an impressive refashioned guitar into a wall shelf. The items ranged from $5 to $85, and the group raised a total of $200 from the evening's event.

An old beat up guitar is transformed into a beautiful, yet functional shelf to store photos and knickknacks. (Photo provided by Alyson Kennard)

Din said she was happy with the showcase and the first-time collaboration. Despite the uncooperative weather causing icy road conditions that evening, she said she was pleasantly surprised with the evening's outcome.

Din said she hopes to continue this collaboration next fall when her Introduction to Art Education class is offered again. She feels it's important for these types of partnerships for UAA and the community to form, so students are exposed to the city's art scene and the art community knows what's happening at the university.

"I always want them [my students] to have a real experience-a hands-on experience-so every project that we do is as "real" as it can be," said Din, who felt this year's art showcase was a great way for students to see the art show process from start to finish, and to learn how to market themselves as artists.
Written by Catalina Myers, UAA Office of University Advancement
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