SF recology artist-in-residence       

Q: What happens when we step into the transfer station (a.k.a. the dump) to make art from discarded material?

W: An artist’s job is to translate the world around them through material. So what happens when we step into the transfer station (a.k.a. the dump) to make art from discarded material? What happens when day after day for four months we witness the mass consumption of our society being relentlessly discarded? No one leaves without having been profoundly affected by the experience, without thinking about life and culture (and trash) in entirely new ways.

The core philosophy of the residency program is to have artists repurpose the material they scavenge into a work of art — “to encourage people to conserve natural resources and promote new ways of thinking about art and the environment.” My writing practice is about collecting fragments of language, the small words and phrases that add up to one's daily existence. At the dump I was able to powerfully translate these ideas into the realm of the object. To truly merge my writing practice and my visual art practice.

It is the site of a four-month-long scavenger hunt. Recology hosts a one-of-a-kind, intensely competitive residency program where for four months, 40 hours a week, a few lucky artists find inspiration, a literally endless stream of raw materials, a wide array of tools, and 2,000 square feet of studio space, leading up to a culminating exhibition event.

I was given heavy boots, a yellow safety jacket, helmet and a shopping cart to walk through the transfer station collecting material. A huge open space with mounds of material being discarded by trucks and cars, with bulldozers pushing the material into piles. "I walked out there on the first day, geared up in my hard hat and yellow vest, and just felt incredibly tiny and overwhelmed! There are days when you simply get melancholy, fatigued, from the endless stream of trash. So many things are still usable -- even still in their packages. Or, even more sadly, photos and letters and other remnants of people's lives that no one cared enough to keep."

Emotions are volatile in these months, ranging from excitement, like a child discovering treasure—to the devastation of finding individual lives in piles of letters written and saved for decades. Small objects that once sat on someones shelf at home. I found a carefully pressed pair of knee high stockings wrapped in a silk pouch from the 1940’s and imagined the woman who might have saved them so carefully. There I was to translate, transform, repurpose, reimagine, and I was hit with such unexpected emotions.

Major questions for me arose around the meaning of life, my purpose as an artist, even questions around wether I wanted to make physical objects anymore. Most questions came and went each day. But what is clear is that my practice did change. I changed. For me I began to ask what connects us as humans? Those piles for me were about lost connection, about life at its end when there is no one  left to hold the memory of you and the objects you imbued with your memory. I spent a lot of time talking to the people who worked in the transfer station facility for years, how they experienced the objects, the philosophy of life they developed. Most impactful were the stories people began to tell me about their own lives via a small picture they found on the damp floor of the transfer station.

At the dump exhibition Alex exhibited a series of 14 sonnets, 14 complementary mixed-media sculptures, photographs, additional poems, and video installations. She also undertook an oral history project, recording the thoughts and words of some of the Recology workers. One security guard in particular was her entree into a social world that might otherwise have been difficult to penetrate in such a short amount of time. He befriended her early on and took an active role in introducing her to other workers. "Many of them have been there for 20 years or more and have developed very moving philosophies about the objects that intersect our lives." Making their rounds at night, security guards have a lot of time for quiet introspection.

I am interested in reality—by reality I mean the fragmented aspect of information—emotion—image—things we keep—things we discard—
The sonnets I wrote during this residency explore the rich margin where text and object overlap and inform one another. 


At A Glance, California College Of the Arts Journal. “Seeking Epiphany: Writing Student Alex Nichols to complete SF Dump Artist Residency May 20-21.” Lindsay Westbrook. May 9, 2011.

Alex returned in 2016 to Recology with her Portable Studio project to photograph the people who she met during her residency at the transfer station. Portable Studio Project is a communication project that is part of her collaborative work with Mushi Wooseong James. See ALEXANDMUSHI