Great things are not done by impulse, but a series of small things brought together.
-Vincent Van Gogh
As creatives, we are tempted by ideas as much as the possibility of what could exist before it does. We thrive on execution, which means we seek out materials, resources, and tools to carry out creative projects based on what we want to make. There’s nothing wrong with this method. The question is, can our planet continue to sustain our whims forever?
Over the hour I sat typing this page, 2.5 million plastic water bottles were discarded, the 1 ton of paper produced used 390 gallons of oil to make it, and last year you, me, your spouse, and your teenage daughter consumed two trees each of paper products. If one-tenth of all American newspapers were recycled annually, we would save 25 million trees. Imagine how many we’d save if we only used recycled paper? Imagine how many we would save if we stopped buying paper for our art projects? 11 million tons of textiles enter into the landfills each year. What if everything that entered our closets we invested in, committed to remaking or repurposing?
I don’t share these statistics to depress you, but to inspire you, because as makers we’re leading a public dialogue around what materials have value. Every time we flex our creative muscles to design something inspiring, buyable, or unique and share it, we tilt the values of the consumer a little closer to our ethos. How? We allow people to feel comfortable with our materials through aesthetic appeal and functionality, and that has incredible power. Remember when people couldn’t imagine carrying around a purse made of bike tires? Remember when mason jars were just something for your grandma’s jam and not a functional speaker for your next dance party?
Below I’ve shared some creative principles that I live by in my creative practice, for seasoned makers and beginners alike.
1. Never Buy New, Reuse Always
What if we stopped buying the things we wanted and instead made things we love out of the things we already own or that were previously owned? Sound weird? Americans throw away millions of tons of clothing, craft supplies, shoes, furniture, and home decor items each year. This stuff sits in landfills and as it slowly and painfully decomposes (most of the items will take hundreds of years to decompose in a landfill environment) it fumes toxic gasses back into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming and causing major environmental issues. Therefore, as makers we have a responsibility to ourselves, our kids, and our planet to get creative not just with what we’re making but with what materials we’re using to remake. Instead of buying raw materials new, invest in tools and get your materials for cheap or even for free by repurposing things that others view as trash. So many materials can be bought used, there are countless thrift stores, Etsy shops, and creative reuse shops that sell everything from fabric to paint.
2. See The Potential In Everyday Things
What could that lamp be if it wasn’t a lamp? What about that rug? How could your old t-shirt become a bed for your miniature poodle? Everything you own, from furniture to clothing, from your kid’s toys to an old bar of soap, has the potential to be something else. Our grandparent’s generation knew this, and they never threw away a single useful item. While I don’t suggest developing a complex, it’s obvious that Americans throw out way more stuff than we need to and we buy just as much (or more) to replace it. But the stuff we throw out? It sits around in landfills as wasted potential, which is unfortunate because all that stuff was once raw materials. The craft industry tricks us into buying more raw materials (like fabric or wood) in order move profit while we trick ourselves into thinking that we shouldn’t cut up items that already exist. But clothes are just fabric, your coffee table is just wood, and your old shampoo bottle is a plastic vessel and all these things have potential.
3. Never Leave Home Without A Map
Whether you keep a special notebook for your creations or you use your computer, having a plan before you start your project can be the difference between an upcycling success and an upcycling failure. It’s ok if you have to adapt your plan as you go, some of the coolest projects don’t end up how they originally intended. Some projects change so many times it’s almost impossible to remember all the iterations of a particular object. Just remember that most things are salvageable with a little elbow grease and a lot of creativity.
4. Save Materials for Later
If you see the potential in something, save it and commit to using it. If you’re worried about unwanted clutter, dedicate a closet to your materials, or commit to repurposing particularly bulky items within 1 month of realizing their potential. Or, repurpose them right away. Typically when I see the potential in something it’s hard for me to wait a week before I start on a new project.
5. Spend More Time Making Less
Sometimes our projects can mean more to us if they take longer to complete. Where I live in the United States, instant gratification drives the story around how people make, but patience truly can instill better results. Really invest in the craftsmanship of your work, and you will always love what you make.