The Washington State History Museum’s “Make/Do: A History of Creative Reuse” exhibit is both fascinating and vast. Numerous rooms of the museum are devoted to this show of objects made from other objects. Many are gleaned from WSHM’s own collection, but others are on loan from venues like the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture and Tacoma Art Museum. Some are more than a century old while others were made very recently.
The exhibit is a brilliant examination of our relationship with objects (mostly machine manufactured objects) and our attitudes toward them. Make/Do presents more than 180 objects — very clearly and logically displayed — that were made via upcycling, downcycling and recycling. The exhibit visits the attitudes that we as a culture have had toward the material objects that equip us in our daily lives. There is also an attempt to show a specific regional characteristic of creative reuse. People of the Pacific Northwest have historically had a different material culture — with lots of forest products and things from the sea — than other regions might have had to work with.
“Upcycling has taken on new life in recent years with a renewed focus on reuse. However, there was once a time when upcycling wasn’t just a hobby, it was a way of life. The Historical Society’s collections are full of examples of creative ‘making do’ — flour sack clothes, stacking toys made from tin cans, that sort of thing,” said Lead Curator Gwen Whiting. “We wanted to embrace the regional nature of this topic, so we connected with historical societies, museums, and organizations across the state in our search for the historic and the contemporary. Objects from all over Washington and parts of Oregon are represented in the show. It is our hope that people will be able to make connections between the exhibition, what’s happening today in their community, and memories from their own family history.”
The usual suspects for reuse are crazy quilts and things like corn cob pipes. Tacoma’s own Lynn Di Nino, an artist who is something of a specialist in tapping into the vast quantities of cast away materials that our culture produces as her artistic media, is represented in the show by “Birds of a Feather,” a pair of silly birds made from old shoes, forks and other objects.
There is a landscape painting on a dustpan and miniature souvenir paintings done on the insides of clamshells. Pop artist Scott Fife, who uses cardboard with brilliant irony to construct marvelous forms, has a larger than life-size bust portrait of “Young Ed Kienholz” (who was an installation artist and social critic).
I enjoyed things like Margaret Hill’s basket woven from dry cleaner bags and Belle Neilson’s wonderfully bizarre, 1950s creations of things like a dinosaur with an oyster shell head.
The great divide in this show, as I see it, is that between objects made in conditions of scarcity and those made in conditions of out-of-control abundance. The objects of earlier times were made by people who did not have a great amount of material goods and reused the objects around them out of necessity. Cloth flour sacks were used to make clothing. Scraps of cloth were used to make quilts. Anything that could be used was used. Old objects were made into new functional objects.
With the advent of massive-scale manufacturing of cheap consumer goods, necessity is no longer the driving force behind reuse. There is such an overabundance of discarded objects that it is available as a raw material for arts and crafts projects of all kinds. An activist artist like Nancy Judd can use caution tape to make a dress that is nothing but an ironic or humorous political statement. Her fashion designs that utilize repurposed “trash” are a form of social criticism of the wastefulness of our material culture that is economically compelled to keep pumping out goods with no end in sight. Such “creative reuse” can make a statement about the problem of out-of-control extraction of resources to manufacture single-use objects, but it can never hope to make a dent in the problem itself. Industrial-scale waste must be dealt with on an industrial scale. Some of the less visually interesting items in the show point in this direction. There are examples of use of magazine trash as wall material done by the Washington State University School of Design and Construction. The same group has come up with construction blocks made from upcycled drywall waste. Our excess products must be used as the raw material for things that are both useful and durable if we are to avoid them becoming problematic waste.
One room of the exhibit is devoted to informational panels that take viewers through the whole history of American waste management and the dawning of new attitudes toward our “waste stream.” Beginning with 1760 as a marker for the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, this part of the exhibit takes the viewer through breakthroughs like the invention of the sewing machine to the beginnings of municipal landfills (1880s). There is note of the 1950s dawn of disposability and wasteful abundance to the counter cultural push for recycling beginning in the 1960s. The growth of garage and rummage sales are presented as signs of hyper abundance. The tags take us all the way up to the 2017 City of Tacoma plastic bag ban.
“Make/Do” includes a makerspace where visitors can make a project of their own. WSHM teamed up with Earthwise Architectural Salvage for this aspect of the show.
On Aug. 16, Third Thursday, kids are invited to be creative innovators and practice their entrepreneurial skills at the Kids’ Maker Market. Vendors ages 4-18 can rent tables for $10 to sell their handmade wares. Interested youth can apply through the WSHM website or contact Allison Stewart Bishins of Handmade PNW, who is organizing the event. Bishins can be reached at email@example.com.
“Make/Do” runs through Dec. 6 at WSHM, 1911 Pacific Ave., Tacoma. For more information, visit www.