Skip to main content

Department ofArt and Art History


Giving Trash New Life Through Art

Professor Kathy Aoki created an art exhibition using discarded items from the dump as one of Recology’s Artists-in-Residence.

Professor Kathy Aoki created an art exhibition using discarded items from the dump as one of Recology’s Artists-in-Residence.

By Ally O'Connor '20
Kathy Aoki

Partnering with Recology San Francisco, Santa Clara University Professor Kathy Aoki (Art and Art History) served as one of six 2019 Artists-in-Residence. She spent October through January conducting creative scholarship by turning other people’s garbage into art, with her work culminating in a solo exhibition, titled Toppled Times.

While processing waste and recycling is Recology’s main endeavor, the Artist-in-Residence program brings a creative approach to the operation. The program continually diverts many discarded items from the landfill while simultaneously providing Bay Area artists with a large studio space and a stipend.

Throughout her experience, Aoki “created new work with feminist themes that include disgraced monuments to the patriarchy and death by a sphinx's inane beauty riddles,” she says. As with all artists in this program, she primarily used materials found in the Public Reuse and Recycling Area, in other words, “the dump.” While she had never previously considered experimenting with materials from the waste stream, Aoki admits that it was one of her favorite aspects of the residency. 

I experimented with discarded products like construction sealant (used to caulk around windows) but instead I used it to smoothen the surface of my sculptures before I faux painted them to look like marble

Kathy Aoki


Mannequin worked on by Kathy Aoki

“Additionally, the figurative objects I found such as mannequin heads, gave me confidence in sculpting figuratively because I could add to or alter the pre-existing human-form rather than start from scratch,” Aoki says.

A true academic, Aoki invited her students to be part of the process. They contributed to the production of her art, participated as actors for a holographic video installation, and were invited to the final exhibition.

Recology’s goal to promote new ways of thinking about art and the environment has left an imprint on Aoki. Reflecting upon the residency, she now states that she will “definitely consider reusing materials before buying brand new art supplies.”  Her time with Recology provided her with a true sense of empowerment as she walked away with the lesson that she “can make art anywhere by using found materials.”

Aoki’s work is now a part of Recology’s permanent collection. It will continue to be shown in off-site exhibitions that promote recycling and reuse, and may eventually find a home in the three-acre sculpture garden that houses the work of Recology artists-in-residence from across the years.


faculty story