Artist's new project: Create treasure from trash

Artists typically do not want to hear their work described as "garbage." But for Michael Arcega's latest project, the description is especially apt.

Assistant Professor of Art Michael Arcega

Assistant Professor of Art Michael Arcega

Arcega, a sculptor and assistant professor of art at San Francisco State University, is one of six individuals selected for the Artist in Residence Program at Recology San Francisco. He will spend four months creating an exhibit almost entirely from discarded materials recovered by Recology, the company responsible for recycled waste collection in the city.

"Repurposing items and being environmentally conscious is a responsibility I have as a maker and also as a citizen, so I feel this project is incredibly important in terms of how we look at waste," he said. "The program links to so many problems about our disposable culture."

From February to May, Arcega will build his exhibit in a studio located on site at Recology. The residency comes with a small monthly stipend to offset the cost of any materials that are not recycled, but the program requires at least 90 percent of the materials artists use for their projects to come from the dump.

"It's an almost endless supply of material," Arcega said. "I've been surprised at the things that people throw out, from fully functional bicycles to beautiful chairs."

Much of Arcega's work explores the "Nacirema" -- American spelled backwards -- a term created by scholars to examine the culture and history of the United States from the perspective of an outsider who is trying to understand a strange and unfamiliar people. One of his past projects involved reimagining the poem "The New Colossus" -- famous for being inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty -- through everyday objects. The Recology project will allow him to explore this theme through garbage, learning about American culture by looking at what the American people discard.

"It's looking at the negative spaces rather than the positive spaces," Arcega said. "If you buy something, you discard the packaging and focus on the object inside. But the packaging contains a lot of information, and by trying to understand that negative space, you're trying to have a deeper and a more interesting perspective on the main object."

As the co-head of the art department's sculpture area, Arcega is used to creating art from found materials. The department is often the recipient of reusable material, such as wood, which Arcega and his students work into their projects. To learn more about SF State's Department of Art, visit

-- Jonathan Morales