Arte de Descartes XV exhibits trash to treasure


The bad news is that our oceans are clogged by millions of tons of plastic trash. The good news is that we can do something about it, recycle.

For the most part, recycling, though rewarding, is not very glamorous. However, many artists have discovered a way to recycle and beautify the world simultaneously. This Saturday (Aug. 29), Taos celebrates helping the planet while enjoying creative masterpieces at the opening of the 15th annual juried recycled art show, Arte de Descartes XV.

Sponsored by nonprofit Taos textile recycler, Wholly Rags, Arte de Descartes is an annual show that gathers a diversity of contemporary folk and fine artists together to celebrate the creative vision of reusing and recycling materials that might otherwise have landed in the landfill or floated out to sea. According to the press release, the show’s purpose is to prove that there is value in reusing old trash. This use of unusual objects creates an impressive inventiveness that might otherwise not be seen in conventional art shows. Recycled art, also known as trash art or junk art, consisting of mostly free materials, with no need for expensive paints or canvases, is accessible to a large diversity of people who only require creative inspiration and talent.

Arte de Descartes and Wholly Rags started 15 years ago with the help of Jean Nichols and Violette Alby who were, at the time, working together to establish free boxes as a solution to the surplus of clothes being thrown away in Taos and Peñasco. The idea for the name of the art show came from the Spanish word for discards, descartes.

Melissa Larson, executive director of Wholly Rags, said in an interview, “The real inspiration for starting the show was to give recycling a voice and make the community aware of growing landfills and to change our consumption and waste habits … Recycled art has had a place in the art world from the time of Picasso, Duchamp, Calder and Cornell. Folk art has used recycled materials as a basis for creativity from crazy quilts and rag rugs to wooden scrap sculptures and basketry. In poorer countries many interesting and fun things are creatively made of using old materials. Making ‘something from nothing’ is the philosophy of the recycled art movement.”

Fifteen years ago, a still-unknown artist by the name of Erin Currier, a barista who made art from discarded paper trash from the coffee shop where she worked, exhibited her work at the very first Arte de Descartes show. Since then, Currier has evolved into a very collectable artist of world renown. Currier continues to send a piece of work to exhibit in the show each year. Larson said sales from their show have been good in the last few years, which she believes reflects an increased appreciation for this kind of work.

Artists from New Mexico and beyond are carefully selected for the show by jurors Terrie Mangat, Lynda Jasper-Vogel and Stuart Wittwer, artists themselves who also have work in the show. The process of selecting artwork consists of looking through pictures and deeming work worthy based on quality and personal aesthetics. In this way, they chose more than 30 artists to exhibit (see sidebar).

There are also three invited artists — Erin Currier, Minori Yata and Joel Lage — considered masters of the recycled art form. Once the show is hung, the jurors go around and select which works take first, second and third-place prizes, which can often be a challenging task with the variety of top-notch innovation common to this exhibit.

Susan Case is a mixed media artist who has had her art on display at past Arte de Descartes shows. Case experiments with found and discarded materials in conjunction with traditional art materials, seeking to transform the object in a way that would have meaning to the viewer. She has worked with newspaper collages, discarded books, picture frames, clothing, upholstery fabric, broken dishes and lumber scraps. She said recycled art is important, “It is a link to the past and our shared personal histories. It is also an art process that can be made by people who never went to art school; one of invention, beliefs, imagination and life experiences. Recycled art as well as folk art and outsider art has greatly influenced contemporary artists and has been shown in major museums and galleries.”

For this year’s show, she will exhibit two cardboard wall reliefs made from shipping boxes, acrylic paint and Styrofoam. One is called “Brooch,” a very large piece of jewelry of multicolored shapes and the other piece is called “Adagio and Fugue,” depicting a large Baroque-style picture frame hanging on a wall. She said of the art work, “Both pieces reference the past, a world very different from our computer and smart-phone age.”

Although this year Arte de Descartes’ opening will not be combined with the Glam Trash Fashion show, the reception will still consist of a party with a spread of food and socializing around the art. This year, local musicians Peter Halter and Ben Wright will play original music with a recycled twist.

While recycled art grows in popularity amid the global art scene, so do trash piles grow across the planet. The greatest hope of advocates and artists of the recycled art movement is to raise awareness to this problem. “In the age of throw away, we need to learn to do more with less,” Larson said. “We need to conserve materials and see beauty in what has gone before.”

Arte de Descartes’ opening reception is Saturday (Aug. 29), from 4-7 p.m. at the Taos Center for the Arts’ Stables Gallery located at 133 Paseo del Pueblo Norte. The show will remain on view from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. daily through Sept. 12. For more information, call the venue at (575) 758-2052 or Wholly Rags at 751-9862. Also, visit


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