Upcycling is not a new idea.
True, the word itself isn’t so old; if we’re to trust Wikipedia, the first recorded use of the term “upcycling” was by German engineer Reiner Pilz in a 1994 article by Thornton Kay.
But the physical activity of recreating with found or used objects and building them into something new, something better, has been around forever, long before Manchester’s Not Your Grandma’s Craft Fair and Goffstown’s Apotheca, and centuries before websites like pinterest.com, etsy.com and uncommongoods.com.
Nanda Soderberg, a Concord glass-blowing artist, cited Marcel Duchamp as an example. Duchamp is the French artist who, in 1917, submitted a porcelain urinal for the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists and called it “Fountain.” He was also famous for a piece constructed from two panes of glass and materials like lead foil, fuse wire and dust.
“The idea has been around for a long time,” agreed Merill Comeau, a Massachusetts artist who’s been working for the past two months on an upcycled art installation at Southern New Hampshire University. “There are all of these other people who came before me who have broken down barriers for the kind of work I do.”
What’s new about upcycling, besides the word, is how cool, how mainstream it’s become in recent years. There’s a new wave of popularity sweeping through southern New Hampshire, and it’s evident in what gift stores are selling, in what craft fairs are promoting and, more importantly, what artists are making.
& Tea Shoppe
A.K.A: The upcycled “warehouse”
Address/contact: 24C Main St., Goffstown, apothecaflowershoppe.com, 497-4940
What they sell: Flowers, coffee, tea, gifts (heavy emphasis on the gifts)
Owners: Alyssa Van Guilder and Pierre Larochelle
You should also know: The shop smells like flowers and potpourri
Many of the artists featured in this story show their work at Apotheca. The flower, tea, coffee and gift shop is located in an 1860s train depot, right in the middle of Goffstown Village.
In fact, most of these artists urged me to check out the shop. It’s the kind of place that, if you were an upcycling kind of artist, would be inspiring. (Plus, there’s coffee.)
Much of the shop is built on the idea of taking used or discarded items and giving them new life. The bench, for instance, that a spectacled customer sat at while sipping coffee and typing on her computer last week came from an old barn. The decorative shelving, tables and counters were almost all created from reclaimed wood from in and around town (much of it from when the nearby nursing home was under construction).
The rest of the furniture is in its original shape, but most of it’s worn, lively with old character. Old-fashioned sofas and tables adorn the front sitting area, and at the time of this visit, the front display was clustered with art by local artists and artisans, leftover from the Black Friday weekend artisan fair.
The shop also has this earthy quality to it — right when you walk in, you’ll find a long, twisted branch (a very thick branch — in fact, it’s more like a tree) hanging from the ceiling. Even this is, in a way, reclaimed. An invasive Oriental Bittersweet, this segment of the tree needed to be chopped down because it was choking another down the street, co-owner Alyssa Van Guilder said in an interview at the shop. It was also beautiful, she said, so they hung it up.
Van Guilder and her partner, Pierre Larochelle, started Apotheca in 2005. In the beginning, it was a very small business, with flowers, tea and gifts, but then, money was tight and the selection was limited. They started it with just $5,000 loaned from Van Guilder’s parents. For them, using salvaged goods wasn’t just a stylistic choice at first; it was necessary to survive.
The pair moved the business to its current, larger location in 2008, which is where they began the coffee shop and where their gift shop business expanded. The entire back half of the shop, in fact, was so full that the owners opened a second storefront across the street, which is where they’ll sell more of the consigned clothes, jewelry, accessories and gifts. It opened on Black Friday.
The wow-piece in the new building across the street is a sculpture mobile, made from thin, wooden planks held together with, of all things, matches.
“I think it’s really poetic,” Van Guilder said, gesturing to the sculpture that she and Larochelle made. Usually she said, matches are the reasons for destruction of wood. Here, they hold it all together.
Most of the items that make up the gift shop are made by local artists, but a handful, said Van Guilder, are imported from out west. Artisan fairs, shops and flea markets in places like, say, San Francisco, she said, are far more dense in upcycled items than around here.
One artist she met out there, for instance, makes wallets from bike tires and thrown-away canvas paintings. Van Guilder sells these wallets out of Apotheca. (In fact, she said, while counting the textured money-holders on the back shelf, they’ve almost sold out). Another artist she met out there makes purses from old books, and another, necklaces from tattered shirts.
Van Guilder seems to be just as interested in the stories behind the pieces she sells, and what’s more, behind the artists’ story. The stories, she said, are part of the charm in selling upcycled artisan goods.
New To You: High-End Recycled Fashion
Address/contact: 15 Pleasant St., Concord, 715-5908
You should also know: After the original consigned clothing runs its course, it’s donated to the Concord Boys & Girls Club, Girls Inc. and other local charities.
What they sell: Gently used clothing, artisan-made and upcycled goods
Owner Nicole Vera started New To You in 2011. Located in downtown Concord, the shop offers high-end recycled clothes in addition to artisan-made and upcycled goods.
About 85 percent of the shop includes gently-used clothing, Vera said, but there’s an entire wall dedicated to these artisan-made items (some of the work is by artists from Wonder Made, an artisan boutique that downsized and moved in with NTY last spring). There’s an art gallery out back, too, featuring art by Margaret Casper, who paints on salvaged wood.
“We sell a lot of locally made stuff. … We had one woman who made Christmas stockings from old fabric, which we gave away during Small Business Saturday,” Vera said. In the new year, the shop is holding a number of DIY upcycling classes (paint your shoes, make a skirt from a man’s shirt, etc.).
Nanda Soderberg, Concord
A.K.A.: The guy who makes stuff from beer bottles
Takes: Beer bottles, wine bottles, shot glasses, glass bowls — basically anything he finds that’s glass
Makes: Tumbler cups, bowls, glass mirrors, vases and other sculpture
Resume: B.F.A. Glass, University of Hawaii, M.F.A. Craft/Material Studies, Virginia Commonwealth University
Nanda Soderberg knows glass well. He’s been working intensely with the material since 1998, when he studied glass in college. He’s taught across the country — in California, in Virginia, Maine and Washington — and he’s shown work nationally, too.
Part of why he’s choosing “found” materials in making his art now, naturally, is because it’s nice to see once-dead items come to life in new ways.
“A beer bottle is something that, once you drink it, you throw away in the recycle bin, and that’s it. I like the idea of making it into a tumbler to be used indefinitely,” Soderberg said. “People have associations with that object; you see that bottle all of the time.”
It’s why, for many of his pieces, he keeps at least part of the original shape intact. When he turns beer bottles into tumbler cups, he keeps the general shape, the roundness, the same. The top third of the bottle is removed and the rest, as you’d see on his website, is speckled with gold leaf paper that he melts on. The overall grip of the bottle is still there when he’s through.
Seeing that it was something else is part of the charm. (Though, he added, beer bottles are designed to fit well in your hand. There’s little point in reconstructing the shape. “It makes the perfect cup!” he said.)
Creating with garbage is also a whole lot cheaper.
“Back when I was in graduate school, I started using found glass objects in my art. It was mostly thrift store kind of stuff,” he said in a phone interview.
“Then, when I got out of school, I was very surprised that nobody was going to pay me to sit around and make art all day,” he joked.
He uses a traditional glass blowing process in the molding of each piece, but since he doesn’t need to build the shape from glass — he just needs to alter it — it’s less expensive.
“I needed to find a way to provide, so I started a glass business. … The biggest expense is the furnace that melts the glass. But I can make this stuff without a furnace. It keeps my overhead so low,” he said.
Soderberg hails from Hawaii. He moved to New Hampshire a little more than a year ago when his wife got a job as a high school art teacher at St. Paul’s School. He currently works in a Manchester mills studio. He has a background in academia, and he’s taught glass at a number of schools.
“It can be frustrating teaching these kids how to blow glass but not giving them options when they get out of school,” he said. “When I’m teaching at these summer craft schools, I like showing them what you can do with a minimum amount of money. You just have to think about it differently.”
Lisa Rogers, Bow
Takes: Old, antique jewelry
Makes: Miniature, wearable canvas art
In another life, she would be: A racoon
Favorite quote: “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” — Edgar Degas
Talk about a conversation piece. Wearing a pair of Lisa Rogers’ earrings is like hanging two miniature and elaborately framed paintings from your ears.
On the gallery page of her website, you’ll find tiny landscapes, fine china still-lifes and even portraits in the form of necklaces, earrings, brooches and buttons. Rogers is a self-taught artist — she jokes she’s been an artist since 3, when she re-imagined her mother’s living room with blue and magenta Crayola — but before last winter, her art was on murals, on the backdrops of theatrical sets. She never imagined she’d go so tiny, she said in a phone interview.
This art combines her love of painting, jewelry-making and thrift shopping, though the three didn’t meet until last January, when the bead of a beautiful old brooch popped off. To her, it seemed the perfect spot for a tiny painting.
“When I put the result up on Facebook, everyone went nuts! That’s when I realized I was on to something,” she said.
Today, she works hard on commissions — holiday, birthday, wedding, you name it — after her day job, which often might mean she’s working until 1 a.m. But she doesn’t mind.
“It can be hard on the eyes, for sure; I do have a special lamp that replicates daylight. Plus I have reading glasses and a steady hand. … But I love art. … It [this jewelry-making art] just kind of took on a life of its own, and I’m passionate about it,” she said.
Ninety-eight percent of the time, she said, she’ll paint the designs on acid-free canvas paper with acrylic paint (oil doesn’t dry as quickly). The smallest painting she’s ever done in jewelry is 7 mL, the largest, 40 mL.
She’s started collecting antique (and regular) jewelry for her art. It helps, too, when your friends, co-workers and family know what you do.
“Some people just give me their stuff,” she said. “I grew up with a mom who loved going to garage sales. Wherever I travel to, I like to scour the local antique shops and flea markets. … If I was an animal in another life, I would have been a raccoon. I’ve got bins in my studio with all kinds of vintage pieces.”
Most of her jewelry is made from pieces that otherwise might have been too old-fashioned to wear, she said.
“Most of the time, it’s something that might end up at the bottom of a jewelry box or at a yard sale. I like giving new purpose to things. I’ll deconstruct it, reuse it and give it a new life. … I believe in making art more approachable, in taking it off the wall and wearing it so that people can see it,” she said.
Heidi Bauer, Concord
Takes: Magazines, newspaper, old books, packaging, calendars
Makes: Earrings, bracelets, cards, stationery
Where you might have seen her: She was at the Not Your Grandma’s Craft Fair and managed not one but two tables.
How to avoid hoarderism: “I give myself a year. If I haven’t used something in a year, then I’ll give it to someone else to use.”
Etsy page: etsy.com/shop/HeidiKindFinds
You can sort of tell that Heidi Bauer is an English teacher by day by looking at the items she makes through her craft business, Kind Finds, which she started only a little more than a year ago. (Though, she said, she’s been an artist “forever.”)
Lots of her work incorporates text from books, from newspapers, from magazines, which she cuts out and places behind a tear- or heart-shaped necklace charm. All of her earrings, jewelry, bracelets and hair pins are taken from old items.
“Lots of art has to do with words and images. I believe that words have power and images have power. When you put the two together, it’s pretty cool,” said Bauer, who teaches at Bow High School.
“It’s central to who I am as a teacher, as an artist. I like seeing the possibilities in things that others do not,” she said.
For instance, she finds poems in old, destroyed books.
“I’ll extract a word or a phrase and put it on a necklace or in a bracelet. I work with lockets now, too,” she said.
She also makes greeting cards and handmade stationery. Sometimes Bauer likes to bring these art projects into her high school classroom. She was blown away when she discovered that some students didn’t know what stationery was. And so, part of her creating, she said, is keeping things like the written word alive.
“Cards communicate in a way that texting, telephone, cannot. A card, you have that forever. It has a person’s handwriting in it! I think it’s magical. I love being a part of that,” Bauer said.
You never know, she said, what’s going to catch your eye, where your next inspiration will come from — a magazine article, a stamp, wrapping paper. She’s gotten used to the questioning looks when she asks to keep old wrapping paper at birthday parties.
“I love colors in general. … I just look for colors in certain things. It’s like looking for seaglass on a beach. Somebody will give me a pile of things, and I’ll sift through them right away and decide what I’m going to use. … It’s very intuitive,” she said.
Merill Comeau, Concord, Mass.
Where you’ve seen her work: Southern New Hampshire University houses many of her pieces; right now, the McIninch Art Gallery at the school is also home to her site-specific installation, “Remains of the Day.” It involved two months of collecting materials onsite that otherwise would have been discarded. There’s a closing ceremony at the gallery Thursday, Dec. 12, from 3:30 to 5 p.m.
Takes: Old fabric, clothing, cardboard, netting — basically whatever she can find.
Makes: Wall displays. Most look like colorful collages; many take natural subjects.
Must-have tools: Scissors. “Some people draw with pencil. I draw with scissors.” She also uses X-Acto knives, a Japanese saw, clippers, pins, adhesives and sewing materials.
How she avoids the hoarder label: She keeps all of her work in her studio. “Collect what you can until it fills the space you’ve allocated to it. Then stop collecting.”
“You learn about where you are and about human life by paying attention to the material world,” Merill Comeau said in a phone interview. She’d know; most of her art is made from remnants of the material world. She knows a lot about Southern New Hampshire University, for instance, because of her site-specific installation there.
“Materials that have been worn by human beings retain a memory. They retain a scent, evidence of youth, of human life. … And I’d say the same is true of materials like cardboard. I know about SNHU’s consumption habits by what’s in its debris,” she said.
She knows there’s a lab in the Robert Frost Building at SNHU; its discarded test tubes made it in the installation, as did some cardboard Coca Cola cups.
“I always work with materials that have been discarded,” she said.
Her friends, family and acquaintances who know her art will often pass their old things along to her. At times, she said, it’s easier to get rid of something when you know it’ll be used again.
“People, a lot of times, don’t want to throw away something they’re sentimental about. Sometimes, some people will give me their favorite dress from the 1960s, from the Depression. When they know that it’s going into art, it’s easier for them to let go of it,” Comeau said.
She also collects materials from a linens antique dealer, who gives Comeau the materials she’s unable to sell. Comeau calls her the Linens Fairy.
Comeau’s work, which you can see on her website, is made mostly from painted and printed vintage linens and repurposed clothing. For the most part, it takes on this earth-like persona, which is completely intentional. She likes to use landscape imagery to create structure in her art. She did this at SNHU, too; Comeau took saplings from outside, painted them black and arranged them to stand, floor to ceiling, and divide the work.
“I feel that nature reflects the human condition, and I use nature as a symbol of our life cycle. It’s a way to visually organize the material, but I’m also abstracting it. I’m trying to have people look at nature in a new way,” she said.
Comeau says she’s always been an artist; as an undergrad, she studied social theory and political economy. Then, in her late 20s, she went back to school to become an interior designer. She had her own practice until 2006, when family medical issues caused her to halt her career. Then she began creating art. Remarkably, her first piece ever got shown.
“All those years in design really allowed me to develop my eye. I always made things out of stuff. People who knew me were not surprised,” Comeau said. “It’s just using everyday objects in a new way.”
Jean Rubin, Nashua
Takes: Old bicycle parts
Makes: jewelry, bicycle racks, mobiles, ornaments
Started selling her work: At Souhegan Cycleworks, where she still works part-time
Must-have tools: Pliers, cable cutters
“I really like coming up with the idea,” said Jean Rubin, an upcyclist and jewelry artist in Nashua. “The whole process of coming up with the idea and figuring out how it’s going to work is the part that I like best. … It’s the invention of the new items that’s so alluring for me.”
Rubin creates items (mostly jewelry) from old bicycle parts from Souhegan Cycleworks, which is where the idea for her jewelry originated about two and a half years ago. She works there part-time now, and it was her boss who encouraged her to make the upcycled jewelry that she now sells there, at Apotheca, at New to You, at the Currier Museum of Art Gift Shop and at Accents With Style in Wilton.
Rubin had seen spoke bracelets before, and she decided to fiddle around with the idea with some of the trashed bicycle parts at Souhegan Cycleworks. “I made the spokes into a bracelet and showed it to my boss. He said, ‘Oh, that’s cool! You should sell them here!’”
So she did. Soon, Rubin started taking all parts of the bicycle — the chains, the spacers that go between gears, the washers, the ball bearings from inside of the hub of the wheel — and began making jewelry.
Her boss now keeps a bin of old parts for her to sift through at the shop, which she takes home and likes to fiddle with. She uses other items — beads, reclaimed wood, “dumpster dive finds” — in her creations too.
“I love the contrast of beads against the more industrial look of the washers,” she said, gesturing to a pair of earrings that hung over her desk in an interview at her home studio.
“It’s not loud jewelry. It’s subtle jewelry,” Rubin said. “People are surprised when they find out it’s made from recycled bicycle parts.”
Jenny Berube, Sunapee
Takes: Antique tea cups, antique silverware
Makes: Jewelry, bird feeders
Celebrity buyers: Selena Gomez has one of her necklaces
Etsy/Facebook page: shesacrafty1.etsy.com, facebook.com/elegantlyeclectic
In Jenny Berube’s garden, you might find a collection of birds and butterflies gathering for an impromptu tea party.
Except, of course, there’s no tea in the antique cups scattered throughout the garden. Instead there’s birdfeed and butterfly nectar, high enough above the ground so that the squirrels can’t get to it.
Berube’s upcycled bird feeders are made from antique tea cups, saucers and her own spoons with hand-woven decorative designs. If you’re familiar with the New Hampshire craft circuit, you might already know Berube’s work; she’s been spending nearly every weekend selling her work at artisan and craft fairs. (For a week every year, she also brings her art down to Key West for its daily, high-profile craft show.)
Some artists who upcycle like to create from garbage. Berube likes to create from things that are already beautiful, like antique cups and silverware.
“I’ve always been interested in taking unusual materials and seeing what else they can be. Like the teacup. Does it have to be a teacup, or can it be something more?” she said.
She finds these items by thrift shopping at flea markets and antique stores during the week.
Of course, the items aren’t in prime condition; oftentimes, the antique silverware, in particular, is blackened and tarnished, really not suitable to eat with anymore.
When this is the case, she chops off the head of the spoon, fork, or knife, cleans it up and creates a necklace from it.
“These pieces that I use for jewelry, when I buy them, are completely black and covered with tarnish. They’re dirty, dusty, but once you get under the surface, you see that each is super unique and super one-of-a-kind,” she said.
It’s nice, too, she said, because she gets to work with silver in an affordable way.
“Obviously, I can’t afford to work with solid silver things. … I’m still looking for things that are still really pretty,” she said. “These pieces are unloved, they’re forgotten about, and by me taking them and recreating from them, I’m helping them fulfill their silver destiny.”
Jessica Gilcreast, Bedford
Known for: Co-creator of Manchester’s Not Your Grandma’s Craft Fair and Dizzy Cupcakes, a business she started with Heather Marr that focuses on creating crafty arts and “sassy-inspired” pieces, often by upcycling.
Why upcycle? “I like it because I don’t do any one particular type of work,” Gilcreast said. Really, it becomes more a question of how to use something rather than what to make.
Most recent upcycled piece: A collection of wreaths. “This summer, I had a collection of grape vines that were choking these trees in my backyard. It became a question of, ‘What am I going to do with all of this grapevine?!’ I made giant wreaths out of them,” Gilcreast said. Those wreaths are on display at Labelle Winery in Amherst.
Favorite stomping grounds: The dump store, yard sales
“Don’t throw that away. I’ll find something to use it for.”
If you’re Jessica Gilcreast’s friend, you might have heard her say this. An artist, upcycler, crafter and repurposer, she’s trained to look at things — trashed, discarded items, especially — with a different eye.
She’s not afraid to embarrass her husband and pull over to pick up items on the side of the road marked with “free” signs. She’s not afraid to admit, either, that her town dump’s store is one of her favorite places to pick up odds and ends to make with.
Gilcreast agrees that repurposing and upcycling are not new ideas, but if Heather Marr’s and her very successful craft fair is any indication, it’s definitely trending right now. A large portion of the artists at the craft fair this year were upcyclers, and the pair actually ran out of room for vendors.
“I think [upcycling is] more mainstream now. Before, it was in smaller artistic communities, whereas now, you can find someone making bicycle parts into jewelry pretty easily,” she said. One of Dizzy Cupcakes’s trademark items, felt flower headbands, are upcycled items, made from leftover factory felt.
How do you avoid the hoarder label?
“You have to use a certain amount of restraint. You can’t use every scrap of paper [or] piece of cardboard. … If I’m not going to use something anytime soon, I’m not going to save it,” Gilcreast said.