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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Gainesville artists create with environmental consciousness

Artists reclaim items, use sustainable materials as part of creative process

<p>Thomas Phillips removes the paint from pieces of broken skateboards that will be repurposed to make woodbots in his studio Friday, March 31, 2023.</p>

Thomas Phillips removes the paint from pieces of broken skateboards that will be repurposed to make woodbots in his studio Friday, March 31, 2023.

Stacks of worn-out skateboards sit in Thomas Phillips’ studio, waiting to be broken down and resculpted into something new. Within a couple of weeks, he can transform a set of skateboards into items like fighting action figure sets, safety goggles or swords.

“Some people were just throwing them away,” he said. “I didn’t like the waste.”

Phillips, 35, is one of many creatives in Gainesville who have taken sustainability into account by upcycling used items into art pieces, trading materials or promoting a connection to nature. As global temperatures continue to rise, some artists have begun centering their creative processes around preventing environmental ruin to slow climate change.

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Artist Thomas Phillips and his wife, Yolanda, sit with their baby in front of their house, which doubles as an art studio, Friday, March 31, 2023.

Phillips’ wife, Yolanda Phillips, 43, is also an artist who makes jewelry and dolls out of metal. The couple work together to manage the company BrokeDeck Creations with a passion for repurposing. 

Yolanda likes creating with metal because it can be melted and reshaped into any form, she said, making it a sustainable medium for art creation.

“When I create something I don’t like,” she said, “I just melt it down and create it into something else.”

Thomas grew up skateboarding and working in construction, he said, and he saw the boards’ potential as construction material. He decided to upcycle them into a collection of art pieces ranging from hair combs to knives, he said.

He often doesn’t buy anything new for his work and uses skateboards as his primary material, Thomas said. But preparing — or breaking down — the skateboards for his projects takes time and energy.

“It holds you back … the energy of breaking it back down into reusable material,” he said. “But that’s the point and the joy of it.” 

Whenever Thomas needs extra materials, he goes to The Repurpose Project’s Reuse Store, which sells items not accepted by traditional thrift stores — like scrap wood and wire. 

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The Repurpose Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building a circular economy, opened the Reuse Store to redirect usable items that would otherwise be at a landfill to art and education initiatives.

Sarah Goff, co-founder and executive director of The Repurpose Project, started the effort after observing how used merchandise not taken into thrift stores would get thrown away, she said. 

“Having access to interesting material is such an important thing to help artists create and express themselves,” Goff said.

By establishing a place for these overlooked objects, she said more can be repurposed than discarded.

From time to time, she said she feels climate grief — a sense of loss people have when thinking about climate change — despite her efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change. 

At one point, she said, protecting the environment felt hopeless because the damage seemed irreparable.

However, climate grief was one reason Goff started The Repurpose Project, she said. 

“It made me think about how important a local circular economy will be when we start experiencing more extreme weather conditions and climate crisis conditions,” Goff said.

Valeria Rosich, 24, is a botanical artist who makes jewelry using real flowers, leaves and seeds. 

She preserves the plants and incorporates them into rings, earrings or necklaces that people can buy from her business, Flores De Miel. She started Flores De Miel with a mission of getting people to establish a physical connection to nature, she said.

“Grief comes from not feeling connected to nature,” Rosich said.

This disconnect she sees in the community causes her sadness, she said. Because people aren’t connected to nature, she said, they’re isolated from any environmental harm resulting from climate change.

Rosich eases her climate grief by sharing her art with the community. Because people treasure jewelry, she said, she hopes people will also treasure nature by wearing her botanical jewelry.

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Samm Wehman posing by her original artwork made from recycled material inside her tent at the Springs Arts Festival at Sante Fe College Sunday, April 2, 2023.

Samm Wehman, a 32-year-old painter, promotes her values for animal welfare and wildlife conservation to the community by painting animal artwork and custom pet portraits for people.

She doesn’t see making art with reclaimed materials as a limit to her creativity, she said. Rather, repurposing objects for artwork can make an artist stand out, she said.

Wehman paints on fan blades, as she was drawn to the shape and texture of them, she said.

“Rather than just painting on a traditional material,” she said, “people see a fan blade with art on it — they know it’s mine.”

After displaying her fan blade artwork at art shows and festivals, now anyone who knows of her gives her fan blades they no longer need that she can use for her projects, Wehman said. 

The search for materials can be time-consuming when creating upcycled art, Wehman said, but artists who don’t have the time or money to get materials can consider Buy Nothing, a project that promotes a system of exchanging and sharing items at no cost. 

Alachua County residents can post about items they need, are willing to share or want to give away on a Buy Nothing Facebook group

Wehman believes artists should try to reflect on how their creative processes impact the environment and make a difference when possible, she said. In turn, people may recognize this effort and embrace more eco-friendly art, she said.

“If all of us make a tiny dent of a difference,” Wehman said, “it’s all just going to make a difference.” 

Contact Zarin Ismail at Follow her on Twitter @zarintismail.

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Zarin Ismail

Zarin Ismail is a second-year journalism major and a staff writer for the Avenue. She has previously worked as a copy editor for The Alligator. She's also a writer for Strike Magazine. When she’s not writing, Zarin watches international TV shows, shops at thrift stores and plays with her two cats.

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