Food & Culture

SoDo Program Gives Seattle Artists Money, Studio and Mountain of Trash

An innovative artist-in-residence program digs into our garbage.

By Jim Demetre July 19, 2017


This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Seattle Magazine.

In a sprawling, cavernous complex in a SoDo industrial park near the shipping-container-lined banks of the Duwamish River, green trucks filled with scrap paper, aluminum cans, plastic milk cartons, colored glass bottles and brown stacks of cardboard arrive one after another to dump their loads. With the help of an enormous machine, the contents are sorted, crushed, bound with wire and shipped off to distant sites, where they will be reconstituted in new and familiar forms.

Amidst the ever-descending dust and the roar of backhoes, Seattle artists Meg Hartwig and Max Cleary are quietly at work, creating art from refuse as part of the second year of the Recology CleanScapes Artist in Residence (AIR) Program. While many well-known artist residencies offer the quiet isolation of the country or the use of sophisticated means of fabrication, the AIR program instead provides a noisy, urban-industrial setting to explore the challenge of consumer waste and the promise of its renewal and reuse. The residency, open to King County artists, includes a stipend, scavenging privileges and access to the company’s in-house studio.

“What’s interesting about recycled materials is that when it comes down to it, they’re all just things caught in a cycle of being acquired and passed on,” Cleary observed in April, early in his residency. “The materials I find within Recology’s recycling stream have the potential to contain richer, more unexpected backgrounds and be in unpredictable states, which is exciting to me.” 


Some of the art he and Hartwig make will be shown during a public exhibition in September as part of Pioneer Square’s First Thursday Art Walk (exact location still to be determined). At the end of their residencies, their work will become part of the program’s permanent collection and continue to be shown in exhibitions that promote recycling and reuse.

The program and exhibit are part of the 90-year-old, San Francisco–based company’s commitment to encourage the public to conserve natural resources and think more deeply about the environment. During their residencies, the artists also speak to school classes and adult tour groups about their experiences. 

Recology, which in 2011 merged with Seattle’s CleanScapes, is a major operator of material-recovery and organics-processing facilities in the west, prioritizing recovery-focused assets over landfills.

Last year’s Seattle AIR program, which is modeled after a similar program at Recology San Francisco, exceeded expectations, says AIR program manager Danielle Gambogi. The work of the two 2016 artists in residence, Dakota Gearhart and Alexander Keyes, “spoke not only to the physical materials available to them, but also to the entire experience working at the facility: the people, the machine, the sensory dimension.”

It’s too soon to know if the experience and work of this year’s artists will be similar, but Hartwig’s art already speaks to a theme of reuse. She’s a Seattle-based sculptor who divides her time between making art in her Georgetown studio, teaching at Bellevue College and working as a carpenter. Her work is both made from and inspired by found materials, so her presence at this recycling facility makes perfect sense. In 2015, as part of Duwamish Revealed—a summer-long series of art installations, performances and events celebrating Seattle’s only river—Hartwig took over a long-abandoned pump station at the water’s edge and created a work from selected refuse she collected there. 

“As an artist, I create work that questions the systems that we have made in an attempt to be less barbaric,” she says.

While Hartwig uses found materials to explore tangled histories and cultural choices, Seattle artist Max Cleary deliberatively constructs works that become mysterious focal points of the ongoing industrial production that underpins human civilization. Straddling the genres of photography, sculpture and installation, the works combine process and abstraction with history and irony. At Gallery4Culture in April, as part of the collaborative group Caché (with artists Jackson Baker Ryan and Alex Boeschenstein), Cleary used familiar building materials and video projections to conjure up the troubling essence of new yet empty residential dwellings and offered an intriguing narrative of Seattle’s proliferating urban space. 

The Recology CleanScapes facility should offer tremendous inspiration to both of these artists, and their work may inspire Seattleites to think about refuse in a new way.  

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