TrashedArt at the Lawrence Headquarters Branch – Part 1

April marks the 11th Annual TrashedArt Contest at the Lawrence Headquarters Branch - Remake, Reuse and Renew the items you would recycle or throw in the trash into something unique and beautiful and rethink the usefulness of garbage. This year is our first virtual contest - you may enter photographs of your creation via email until April 28. The artwork will then be displayed from April 29 through May 15 on the Mercer County Library System website where everyone can vote for their favorite. For more information, please visit the TrashedArt page.

The library has spoken with a few former TrashedArt winners about their experiences with the Contest. Many of the participants have been artists for many years, and Helene Plank and Cathy Tsao are no exceptions. Ms. Plank relates how her experiences as an artist help transform ordinary trash into extraordinary art.

Hello Ms. Plank. Thank you for speaking with us today about your TrashedArt experiences. The library and many of our patrons are very excited about the contest, and we are thrilled to have you back to participate. How did you come to learn about TrashedArt?

I was attending a knitting group at the Lawrence Library and noticed the artwork displayed for their second annual competition. I was really impressed by all the creativity I saw at the show.

How many years have you participated in TrashedArt?

I’ve been a participant since the third competition which was held in 2012.

Were you creating art before TrashedArt?

Yes, I had been doing pastel portraits since I was in grade school and later branched out into other mediums as the years went by.

How and why did you start making art?

I’ve been making art since pre-school, all the way through high school and college, was a Visual Arts Major and an Advertising Design major in college. I also worked a while as a graphic artist.

What recycled art medium (i.e. spoons, buttons, plastic bags, etc.) do you mainly work with (for TrashedArt pieces)?

I mostly work in buttons and beads. What sets my work apart from other button artists is that I hand-sew all my materials onto unfinished canvas. No glue is used at all. Sewing the materials does take longer, but I feel that the finished piece is more permanent by sewing rather than by gluing. Also, my method is much more forgiving in that I can make revisions more easily. If I used glue to attach the items, revising a piece would be nearly impossible. In addition to the durability, I choose to sew rather than glue because I don’t want to destroy the material in any way. In the case of the buttons, some can be quite valuable, and gluing would lessen their value.

What inspired you to try this medium?

My husband is a retired art instructor and a full-time artist. He saw my button collection at home expanding and suggested that I do something creative with the buttons. At first, it was a challenge to interpret such different items into a piece of artwork, but I remembered the method that the Impressionist artist Georges Seurat used with his creation of images on canvas by painting various clusters of dots together to form his subjects. The term is coined as “visual blending,” where the eye sees the artwork from a distance, and those dots blend together to form the image on the canvas.

Have you tried any other mediums?

Over the years, I’ve tried many different mediums. As I mentioned earlier, my first subjects were portraits in pastels, but I’ve also worked in pencil, pen and ink, oils, watercolors, printmaking and even did some 3-dimensional work in clay and plaster.

Where do you look for inspiration?

Just as I began my artistic journey as a child, I’m still interested in doing portraits, both human and animal. Another favorite subject of mine is flowers. To date, I’ve done three floral pieces. Some of my pieces have been various subjects, which are considered still life.

What inspires you?

I’m inspired by color and pattern. I really enjoy using a variety of colors and shapes. Also, I like to include items that are little surprises to the eye, such as buttons in particular shapes. For instance, I used a piece with buttons in shapes of stars, lady bugs, flowers, and I even used one in the shape of a Crayola crayon. It’s really great to attend a show, and see that viewers can find different objects in my artwork.

What do you hope viewers interpret from your pieces?

I hope that people who see my work can get pleasure from such ordinary objects, and that they can appreciate the time and effort that I put into my pieces.

What does your work aim to say?

My artwork is meant to be uplifting, to show people that everyday objects, often discarded by some individuals, can be repurposed and made into something beautiful. It’s the perfect example of the old saying, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

As the contest is anonymous, we do not want to reveal which piece is yours this year by talking about it. Can you tell us about previous submissions you have worked on?

Some of my previous works have been portraits, floral pieces, and one piece was a room interior.

Have you ever won, and if so, can you please tell us about the piece? For example, what materials did you use, what inspired you to create it, and what was your artistic process?

Yes, I’ve won several awards. In 2012, I won both First Place and the People’s Choice awards for my self-portrait. The following year, I won First Place again for my “Jester’s Mask” mosaic. For both the 2016 and 2017 shows, my “Iris Fantasia” and “Golden Marilyn” won Third Place. And my “Spectral Chamber” piece won Second Place in 2019. All these pieces were button-and-bead mosaics.

Besides your own artwork, do you have a favorite piece (or pieces) from previous TrashedArt Contests and can you tell us about it and why it is your favorite?

There are so many, it’s truly difficult to pick out my favorite, but I can recall one piece that was suspended from the ceiling. It was made entirely of Target gift cards and looked like a quilt pattern. Another beautiful piece was a sunburst created from beer bottle tops. It was massive and very striking.

What is your favorite part of TrashedArt?

The best part of TrashedArt is seeing the variety of creativity in all the participants’ work. Every year that I visit the display of work, I continue to be amazed at the different finished pieces, and how each artist manages to produce yet another wonderful piece of art. Although some of the same artists return year after year, each of their artworks show a new aspect of their artistry. It’s truly inspiring

What advice do you have for current and future TrashedArt participants?

The main thing I can say to other artists for this competition is just this – pick something mundane and make something spectacular from it. You never know what you can do until you start. Once you begin, you won’t want to stop.

Cathy Tsao talks about her artwork and what inspires her.

Thank you for speaking with us today about your TrashedArt experiences. The library and many of our patrons are very excited about the contest, and we are thrilled to have you back to participate. How did you come to learn about TrashedArt?

I found out about TrashedArt through the ArtWorks website.

Were you creating art before TrashedArt? How and why did you start making art?

I have been making paper sculpture, also known as 3D origami for more than 10 years. Folded paper triangles are used to make elaborate animal and decorative models. My desire is to raise paper sculpture from a craft to an art form. I revel in creating unusual sculptures through fantasies of my mind and intricate design techniques. My inspiration comes from the natural world and from objects in other media.

What do you hope viewers interpret from your pieces? What does your work aim to say?

There is no trash, only material to be used for art work. Flyers and office printouts are often made of high quality paper, and beautiful sculptures can be created using them.

- by Julia, Lawrence Branch


  1. Thanks, Julia, for all your work every year lately, but especially this difficult year, to make Trashed Art such a success and so much fun to do and to see.


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