RethinkWaste held a Rethinker Spotlight Webinar on June 29, 2022 featuring local artist, Harriete Estel Berman. Harriete shared in-depth details about her art, the materials she uses, and the messaging behind the art pieces, followed by a discussion where attendees got to ask Harriete questions.
This page provides the links to resources, the recording of the event, and questions and answers from the audience.
Questions and Answers
1. What inspired you [Harriete] to turn ordinary waste material into extraordinary pieces of art? Can you talk a little bit about your inspiration?
In 1980 moving to California, there was no curbside pick-up recycling. I lived in Palo Alto near the Stanford campus and became aware that they had recycling on campus. I would collect newspaper, glass, and tin cans.
In 1988, I simply decided that I was only going to use recycled materials. At that time, I started using recycled tin cans. And using this material inspires new work all the time. The patterns on the tin cans, the lettering, and the messages from our consumer society are all the things that inspired me. When I started working with plastic waste, I must admit it was kind of embarrassing. The piece that I show you with a necklace in the fruit crate label, I submitted to an exhibition, and a colleague of mine admired my jewelry piece made up of plastic waste. So, I was admitted because my craftsmanship is impeccable, but truly, I am working with waste material.
2. When you [Harriete] heat and bend the plastic, what tool do you use, and do you do it outdoors?
I’ve done lots of experiments that don’t require heating. While I don’t heat the plastic, I am always doing new experiments with plastic! I work with the garage doors open, as I believe in the fresh air, but try to be as nontoxic as possible. Heating plastic is not something I would generally recommend. I did experiments with laser cutters, and that doesn’t work either because it is essentially hot. So, the point of my answer is to think about how you can use your materials in the most environmentally friendly way possible.
3. What is your [Harriete] favorite kind of scissors to use? And how do you avoid accidentally cutting your fingers when working with cans?
I learned to work with my materials very carefully! When I work with my tools and materials, I always rethink my approach to the material. You’d be stunned to realize how difficult it is to cut plastic waste. I investigate all different kinds of shears that will cut the plastic. So, when I work with my materials, I am always as safe and environmentally conscious as can be. I’m also thinking about the impact that it has on my body. So generally, if I’m cutting plastic, I’m only cutting a few hours out of the day because it’s difficult to cut. You’re going to want to think about how you can be aware of using your materials in a way that you can sustain that for yourself as the artist.
4. What kinds of tools do you [Harriete] use for cutting metal and how long have you been cutting metal?
I have the privilege of having both a Bachelor of Fine Arts and a Master of Fine Arts in Metal Smithing. I have a lot of technical skills, but I will say that I have an aptitude for working with materials. Even though I have a lot of technical background, it was a leap to take my traditional metalsmithing skills and work with tins cans and waste to turn waste to art. That’s one of my objectives- to truly transform my materials! I am really not inspired if the final outcome looks trashy. I want people to look at my work and be like “Wow, how did she make that!?” and not have it be so obvious that it might have been an old tin can, milk bottle, or orange juice container.
5. Do you [Harriete] have a favorite material to work with and if so, why?
I don’t really have a favorite material, but I am always experimenting. I am always going back and forth with tin cans and plastic, which I have been doing for eight years. The bigger project that I like is the black plastic necklace which took about four months. Also, I am always focusing on one project or the next, so therefore I am always experimenting.
6. What inspires you [Harriete] to make art that addresses the economic sphere of society?
I am more inspired by what I see in politics and just around me in my own neighborhood, so I feel like I must address that. The children are not bulletproof pin was made for a show about politics. The message and children are not bulletproof is more resonant now than it was 20 years ago when I made it. With my grass sculpture made entirely from tin cans, I was thinking about the environmental impacts of lawns. Keep in mind that this was 22 years ago, and people thought I was insane. But now- as we continue to have lawns, face related climate change, experience a 100-year drought- for the first-time, people must realize the environmental impact of having a grass lawn.
7. Do you [Harriete] have a favorite personal art piece?
My favorite personal art piece is the functional chair I created that is attached to the wall. It describes what I am seeing in our consumer society where people create an identity for themselves by what they buy and why they buy it. I am very, almost painfully, aware of the impact of our consumption and overconsumption. We are talking about plastic waste, packaging, consumption, and climate change. It all has to do with our consumption. I cannot stop thinking about that! So, I am generally aware, which is the reason why I only get takeout once a year. Not only that, but I also get a guilt attack when they use a plastic container. I mean, there are a lot of places that are changing the law that they can’t use single-use plastic for takeout, but instead must shift to containers that are recyclable or environmentally friendly. Still, we continue to create volumes of waste in our society. That is hard for me too!
8. We are starting to see white plastic being used to replace black plastic containers: are those recyclable?
The response to that is that it depends. If you see a chasing arrow symbol with numbers one or two, then yes, it is recyclable! If it does not have these, then unfortunately, it will have to go in the garbage bin, or you can do something else with it. Hopefully after this webinar, you get inspired to rethink it and use it for another time or creation!