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While art is almost always powerful, it isn’t always eco-friendly. Toxic paints, stacks of discarded canvases, and brand-new sculpture materials never used all contribute to our decaying natural world. However, there is an abundance of artists who specialize in upcycled masterpieces. Whether they’re dumpster diving or flipping through old magazines, these artists are a testament to the philosophy that art can feed the soul and the planet. 

Here are our favorite upcycling artists you need to know about, too! 

1. Michelle Reader 


All of Michelle Reader’s sculptures are made from upcycled materials from thrift shops, trash cans, and anywhere else she can source creative and useful things to turn into art. She’s made a variety of animals, plants, and figures from discarded gas masks, sheets of metal, bicycle parts, and so much more! Reader loves the unpredictability and excitement of turning junk into art. She understands that we all need to limit our waste and her work is an example of how we can turn our trash back into treasure. 

2. Tim Noble & Sue Webster

This creative duo is redefining what trash is and what you can do with it. Some of their pieces are more abstract and graphic than others, but they all carry a strong message and are striking to look at. Noble and Webster use trash from their own life, bits of wire, and discarded wood among other materials to shape their sculptures. Our favorite work of theirs is their shadow sculptures. They initially look like piles of junk but create emotional portraits when put against a wall with a light shone onto them. 

3. Yuken Teruya 

Born in Japan, Yuken Teruya loves to have fun with a variety of materials like monopoly money, leaves from Central Park, and piles of toilet paper rolls. Many of his exhibitions focus on capitalism and money, encouraging the observer to ask what “value” really is. His Corner Forest project took toilet paper rolls and cut branches out of them to create a forest from the dead paper. Teruya is “inspired by Aristotle’s philosophy of nature that regards the development of potentiality to actuality as one of the most important aspects to learn from nature.

4. Derek Gores

Derek Gores uses old magazines, maps, and other bits and pieces to create eye-grabbing canvases. When it comes to using recycled materials, Gores says, “I enjoy the contrast of timeless beauty with disposable materials – the pop art, post-Warhol idea that advertising and throwaway materials just maybe could be art. That anyone can touch or use, or reuse, these materials.” He does a mix of recycled collages and charcoal drawings. Both are equally entrancing. 

5. Khalil Chishtee

Discarded plastic bags are a more common sight than any of us probably care to admit. Luckily, Pakistani artist Khalil Chishtee is putting lots of them to good use with his incredible sculptures made from plastic bags. His pieces are eery and mirror human bodies in unexpected ways. The works symbolize how we can “recycle our identity” and turn old into new. Chishtee does other sculptural work as well which are equally as captivating.

6. Ptolemy Elrington

Ptolemy Elrington’s work is a look into what animals might look like in a few centuries. His Hubcap Creatures are sleek, expertly put together, and fun to look at. Every piece is made from upcycled and recycled materials. His work symbolizes how man-made objects are replacing organic animals in our oceans, deserts, and forests. Elrington’s work is immediately recognizable and showcases the artistry found in discarded scraps of metal. 

7. Robert Bradford

Robert Bradford is best known for his animal sculptures made from discarded toys. They are colorful, playful, and will draw observers in for several moments as they try to pinpoint what each piece of the sculpture is made from. Bradford says, “For a long time now I have preferred to use materials that are not bland i.e. have some kind of history of weathering or use.” He also does a lot of canvas work, which is equally riveting. 

8. Vik Muniz 

Originally comes in infinite forms and no one exemplifies that better than Brazilian artist Vik Muniz. His reproductions of famous artworks with a variety of upcycled and recycled materials are anything but ‘copies’. They are completely original and equally incredible to look at. His works include reproductions of the Mona Lisa by Leonardo DaVinci and The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh. 

As the conversation about what ‘eco-friendly’ means develops, we look forward to watching new artists emerge and create art from the trash we’ve left behind. These artists are just a few of many talented people out there taking a stance for what they believe in beautiful, unforgettable ways.

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