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Recycling Rag, eco-artware's newsletter

Spring 2008

In This Issue:


Ptolemy's Sculptures: Beyond Hubcaps


Ptolemy and his large heron made from shopping carts
Photo by Drew Gardner

British sculptor Ptolemy Elrington (known simply as Ptolemy) built a reputation creating creatures — real and mythical animals and fish (Recycling Rag: Winter Issue 2003) — from car hubcaps. Now he has completed two unusual commissions to develop designs in other previously ignored media: unusable grocery store trolleys and rejected pots and pans. The results were, in both cases, breathtaking.

The first commission came from Anglian Water, a British water provider, which developed a Rivercare campaign to organize volunteers to clean up the rivers, canals and reservoirs in Anglian Water's service area. The company supplies safety gear and insurance and facilitates travel for volunteers to reach the cleanup sites, and hired Ptolemy to create designs from the debris cleared from the waterways. The artist chose shopping carts as his medium.

Some of the ones fished from the rivers were too rusty even for his purposes, so Ptolemy gathered more in scrapyards and from a dealer who considered them beyond repair. The sculptures depicted British wildlife currently in resurgence as water quality in their habitat improves, and won six industry awards in Britain and in the European Excellence awards in Berlin.

The second commission came from Kenwood, a company that makes kitchen appliances in Britain. The company started the same year Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip got married and wanted to celebrate their mutual 60th anniversary in a novel way. It hired Ptolemy to make an 8-foot statue of the Queen from old/returned and broken cooking utensils and kitchen equipment.

Because Ptolemy has a full schedule teaching and working on new commissions, he hasn't time to create a website for them--but hopes to do this soon. But you can still see his sculptures from hubcaps.


Ptolemy's statue of Queen Elizabeth II made from old kitchen mixers, juicers, toasters and more. Commissioned to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Queen's wedding to Prince Phillip, an additional aim of the artist was to "encourage people to re-use stuff." After a public display, it was returned to the company that commissioned it.

Detail of Ptolemy's Queen Elizabeth ll


Ptolemy Elrington's giant dragonfly with a head made from shopping cart wheels.
Photo By Ptolemy Elrington


Crayfish made from shopping carts. It's tail is made from wheel brackets and the body is made from thicker steel sections.
Photo By Ptolemy Elrington

John Boak's Serendipitous Cabin in the Woods


John Boak's cabin in the Rocky Mountains. He and his family spent four years completing the exterior trim and interior finish and relied on chance acquisition of recycled and found objects to personalize, and complete their work.

Who hasn't dreamed of a cabin in the woods, a retreat from the workaday world surrounded by magnificent scenery and not much else? Artist John Boak did, and after ten years of dreaming, he realized his idea — by factoring serendipity into it.

The plan started conventionally. Boak, who lives in the city of Denver, worked with an architect, who is a friend and client, to draw up plans for a vacation home in Leadville, Colorado (population 2,500). The land is encircled by peaks over 14,000 feet tall, and it snows from October to May. In 2004 he hired a professional builder to construct — but not finish — a 1,200-square-foot frame cabin.

Left with "a functional building with ugly interiors," Boak — with the help of his wife and teenage son — spent four years installing floors, walls, cabinets, trim and railings. As this is a second home, Boak felt he had the luxury of taking the time to personalize it and incorporate found materials into the interior. He crafted railings, window and door trim from dead aspen trees culled from the neighborhood and milled many trees to cover the walls of one bedroom. A krumholtz pine tree root holds a roll of toilet paper and another root is part of the handrail on his tree-lined stairwell.

From a "magic dumpster" behind his city home, Boak gleaned many of the cabin's furnishings: two beds (including mattress and springs), two braided rugs, an oriental rug, a toaster, an electric coffee maker, an industrial vacuum, lamps, work benches and framed mirrors. How could a dumpster could so easily provide necessities over time?

"This is a rich world," he said.

Sometimes solutions to everyday needs came spontaneously. "You can make stuff up. It doesn't have to be perfect," Boak said.

Case in point: His solar curtains made from silver bubble insulation covered in black fabric rescued from the trash bin. The curtains have air flow valves at the bottom that open when heated, releasing significant solar warmth into the living space even when no one is home, and close when the temperature drops, trapping the cold air between the window pane and curtain. He also uses window insulators made from discarded packing foam and a black-painted plywood box to collect solar rays that ward off the frigid winter temperatures.

To see how Boak's getaway developed, visit www.boakart.com/cabin/cabinhome.html.


The Boak family's VW windshield coffee table. Boak found the windshield 30 years ago in a dump and kept it in his art studio until he could figure out what to do with it. He mounted them on dead aspen logs he found near his property.

Lecterns from Recycled Wood

Brian Johnson has always been handy with a hammer. As a high school math teacher in Proctor, Minn., near Duluth, in the 1960s, he started doing carpentry work and handyman jobs on the side and eventually ran his own construction business. "Math teachers don't make very much, and I had four kids to put through college," he recalled recently.

Now that Johnson is retired, he's turned his skills to a labor of love. Each year, he selects a teacher in his old school district to receive one of his now-famous lecterns custom-made from recycled wood. The first lectern he made for himself is now a plant stand at his house on 10 acres overlooking the north woods, but his fellow teachers admired the workmanship so much, Johnson began making them for others. He's completed 15 to date, and is spending the winter working on another.

"I make them specially for the person, to fit their personality," he explained. "Then in the spring my wife and I invite them and their spouse out to the house for a party and present the lectern. Everybody seems to enjoy it."


Lectern built for a high school art teacher by Brian Johnson. The base is made from a table; the drawer is from the science room in the old high school that had been razed.

Johnson tries to match the style of the lectern to the teacher. Although Glen Sorenson, 2006 Minnesota teacher of the year, doesn't use a lectern in his outdoor science and biology classes, Johnson honored him with one fashioned from a maple stump and covered in birch bark. For a social studies and history teacher, he made one out of an old school desk, with antique cabinet doors. His only request of those who receive his lecterns is to pass them along when they retire.

Johnson finds his materials at warehouse sales, estate sales, anywhere old furniture or cabinets or shelving might be on the verge of being discarded. He stores his collected materials in his construction shop until inspiration strikes. His current project incorporates a drawer restored from a table at the old high school where Johnson used to teach with the latest recipient. 

As word has been getting around about his interest in recycled wood, Johnson has been getting some interesting requests. "A lady from the township hall in a small town near here called and asked if I could make a podium out of their old piano," he said. "It was going to be too expensive to have it fixed up to play again, but it was part of the history of the town and they didn't want to get rid of it. It sounded like something worthwhile."

Web Citings

Teacup Chandeliers


An chandelier with four cups and four electric lights by Madeleine Boulesteix.

Like buildings, clothes, food and everything else, lighting fixtures suspended from the ceiling have come a long way since the 18th century. Madeleine Boulesteix, a British designer, crafts modern chandeliers that leave behind the traditional crystal-heavy motif.

Instead she incorporates found objects — primarily mismatched teacups, wineglasses and glass drops — along with kitchen gadgets she has "liberated from their domestic duties" to make ornate fixtures, large and small.

Boulesteix says she has "loved making things" since she was a child. Her career began conventionally: She attended art schools and worked as a photographer, teacher and prop person in theatre productions.

One day she accidentally began creating chandeliers from found objects and soon discovered enjoyment in making opulent objects from everyday discards. In response to requests, she developed the line and now makes them in all sizes.

"Re-using has always been part of my lifestyle, from the post-war thrift inherited from my parents' generation through the very influential punk movement to the ecological concerns of today," Boulesteix said. "In the punk era, like other folk cultures, a lot was done with very little.... I found this so inspiring and loved the energy and inventiveness, and still do."

Visit her site www.madeleineboulesteix.co.uk to see additional designs.


Updating Origami

Origami — the art of creating complex sculptures by folding paper — has been around for a long time. Although it began in China, the birthplace of paper, in the first or second century, the art of origami received its widespread fame (and name) after being adopted by wealthy Japanese in the sixth century. Because paper was expensive and scarce, they used it mostly for practical purposes: they gave gifts of folded paper with a strip of meat or fish and celebrated weddings by wrapping glasses of wine in folded butterfly forms. But as papermaking techniques improved and it became less expensive, origami became popular throughout the country.

Beyond use as decorations for holidays and parties, custom boxes and everlasting flowers, origami has evolved into 80 distinct forms using a variety of materials including napkin folding, quilts, palm weaving and, the latest wrinkle, toilet paper origami (known as toilegami), now practiced in hotels on most continents. While housekeepers have long folded the first sheet of a roll of toilet paper into a triangle to notify the guests that they had cleaned the room, some hotels have elaborated on the original design to make intricate origami designs.

Photographer Stephen Gill has spent three years photographing toilet paper pleats and folds throughout the world and has compiled them into a 52-page limited edition book called Anonymous Origami.

For more information on toilegami and other forms of origami, visit The Origami Resource Center at www.origami-resource-center.com. (Pictures provided by The Origami Resource Center.)


Three different styles of toilegami.

How Green Is My Wedding?

Portovert (www.portovert.com) is a one-year-old online magazine covering stylish and green ideas for all things wedding: engagement parties, bridal showers, the actual wedding, honeymoon and more for eco-aware brides, grooms, their families and friends. The title means "gateway to green" and the editors include do-it-yourself ideas in addition to lists of vendors who can help green weddings throughout the country. The current issue includes a DIY project for brides who would like to make a glittering hair piece from vintage brooches and combs.


Directions for making a glittering hair piece made from vintage brooches are given in Portovert.



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