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Recycling Waste into Art

If you are a fan of recycling, you probably know about Philly’s efforts to recycle clothing, furniture, paper products, and glass. But what about the tons of waste associated with building construction, demolition, and development? That is the question that gave birth to Recycled Artist in Residency (RAIR), a non-profit situated inside a construction and demolition waste recycling company in northeast Philly that encourages artists to recycle waste into art.

“Our mission is to challenge the perception of waste culture by providing a unique platform for artists,” said RAIR co-founder and creative director Billy Dufala. “The concept originated in a thesis on sustainable design written by co-founder Fern Cookin in 2010. It was based on a program in the Bay area called Recology which awards artists-in-residence with access to discarded materials.”

Here is how RAIR works. Emerging, mid-career, and established artists respond to an annual juried open call for artist residences. RAIR residents receive studio space and have an opportunity to source materials from Revolution Recovery (RR), a fully operational recycling facility processing 550 tons of waste per day. “We choreograph the resident visit to RR in a thoughtful, measured way so we don’t interfere with their process. We are a guest in RR’s house,” said Dufala.  

By facilitating artists’ direct engagement with the waste stream, RAIR encourages residents to consider their studio practice through the lens of sustainability and to thoughtfully reassess their processes of material sourcing and waste disposal. RAIR has also extended its reach far beyond its resident artists through projects including recycling facility tours, class presentations, public events, and exhibitions. This type of programming illustrates the connections between art, industry, and sustainability.

“This never would’ve happened without our collaboration with RR,” he said. “I like the idea of having no strings attached, allowing artists to explore, fail, and not be beholden to the large financial model. This allows artists who make huge installations and don’t have the means of storing it to use the yard as a stage, after which the material can go back into the waste stream. Meanwhile, work that isn’t necessarily big and expansive can be shown in a gallery.”

Dufala and his brother Steven share a background as PAFA-trained sculptors and instructors for thirteen years which enables him to fully understand the challenges facing area artists. Dufala’s work includes drawing, performance, and design. “The RAIR residency program frees up artists to detach themselves from things that can bog down the creative process,” he said.

Current RAIR Resident Artists

Current RAIR residents include Li Sumpter, an award-winning, self-described mythologist, educator, and multidisciplinary artist. Her artistic practice and collaborative design initiatives explore real and imagined existential threats to mind, body, and spirit while also offering creative solutions to address them. Through speculative stories and immersive experiences, Li aims to illuminate patterns of change and paths toward rebirth in dark and uncertain times. 

Another current RAIR resident, Pap Souleye Fall, is a Senegalese-American artist who explores the transmedia potentials of sculpture, installation, performance, cosplay, digital media, and comics. Much of his work reflects his growing up within the Diaspora. He became fascinated with how art could be embedded in everyday life, activating common materials and encounters to explore themes such as diaspora, post-apocalypse, Utopia, identity, notions of masculinity, Africanisms, and Afro-futurism.

RAIR artist-in-residence Paper Buck is an interdisciplinary visual artist, printmaker, and writer. His recent work is focused on place-centered research that critically explores white settler constructions of conservation, ecology, and the “American Landscape.” Paper received his MFA from Carnegie Mellon University in 2020 and earned a Bachelor’s degree in Studio Art and American Studies from Macalester College in 2008. His practice is informed by a background in community organizing that centers anti-racist education, decolonial movements, and transgender justice. 

Art and Recycling: A Sustainable Future

RAIR just celebrated its 10th anniversary recently at their annual “Trash Bash” fundraiser and Dufala is excited about RAIR obtaining access to 3.5 acres on the RR site. “This is a very generous offer which will allow us to do projects on a previously contaminated site which was remediated at a cost of millions by the EPA Super Fund and is no longer a threat.”

“We look forward to establishing new partnerships and to continue to educate people about Super Fund sites,” said Dufala. If you are interested in volunteering or collaborating with RAIR, contact info@rairphilly.org.

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