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A conversation with: The Wasteshed founder Eleanor Ray 

While some artists aim to create things that have never been done before, Eleanor Ray believes in giving materials a second life and creating art from items that others may discard. This is reflected in her work as executive director of The Wasteshed. 

Ray founded The Wasteshed in 2014 as a non-profit focused on creative reuse. The two locations in Chicago and Evanston function like a thrift store, selling used art materials for low prices or donating them back to educators. She describes the organization’s origins and its significance to the artistic community. 

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.  

How did you become passionate about creative reuse? 

When I was living in Portland, Oregon, I started going to this place called SCRAP Portland which was a creative reuse center. They are a nonprofit thrift store for art materials, school supplies and creative and educational source materials. At the time, I was pretty unemployed and spent a ton of time volunteering there. It was a very inspiring space in terms of the dizzying variety of things you would encounter that were just so exciting and so mysterious and always made me sort of curious to learn more. I found that working with entirely pre-existing, post- consumer materials was just a very exciting way to work. It was sort of freeing. There wasn’t the terror of the blank canvas or the preciousness of the new packaged thing. 

How did The Wasteshed come about? 

I moved to Chicago because I wanted to be in a bigger, more creative, more diverse, globally-connected city. When I arrived here there wasn’t anything like SCRAP as a resource for the creative community. I noticed there were so many schools, so many artists, so many people out here just making stuff and there were just so few resources for them that were not spending all their money at Blick or whatever first-hand sources there were for art materials. People were obviously dumpster diving and sharing things between themselves but there wasn’t really any central way for those resources to get reabsorbed and redistributed. 

What are the core values behind The Wasteshed? 

The idea is that we are trying to lower barriers to creative activities for everyone we can find. That’s both in the materials and our programming, just trying to be maximally accessible and letting people know that they can make art and they can make it any which way that they want. I think art and education are big components of why human life is worth living. Also, making people think about the materials that are around them: the manufactured objects and the sort of embodied labor in them, not just what they are, but where they came from and what they could be. Any given object is not just one thing, it’s the whole history of its production and its travel through the world. We’re trying to figure out how to make that process more circular and not just linear from extraction to landfill. 

The Chicago store has just moved out of its previous location. What has that been like? 

Last August, we were informed by our landlords that they were planning on renovating the building and turning it into condos, so our time was at an end. We were scrambling a bit, but we found a really cool space up on Kimball and Bloomingdale. 

Do you think starting and operating the store has impacted you creatively in any way? 

It’s a space that has attracted an incredible range of artists who work in all sorts of media and are doing all kinds of cool stuff so it’s been really amazing being able to talk to them about all of their projects. We’ve built this whole kind of community around people who prefer or do work in reused materials and that’s been a really great kind of education. In an immediate-impact way, I barely have the time or energy to make my own work anymore, so that’s the drawback. It’s one of those cruel Catch-22s that you get sometimes, but hopefully I’ll get back into it. I was running a mending project for many years called Radical Mending. It was an open workshop where people would drop in and bring clothing or textile based stuff they wanted to repair and I would consult with them and show them how to fix it. There was a really fun scene that built up around that which would be nice to get back into. That was very much part of the mission but also part of my own work. 

What is the most significant thing you hope people take away from your work? 

Reuse is inevitable. It is a growth industry, and we need to radically reimagine our society’s relationship to materials and resources because we don’t have a choice. If we can do that in sort of an intentional way sooner rather than a “oh goddamn, we’re totally out of this material and we’ve destroyed the natural environment” way sometime in the near future, then that’s the way we should go. Also, it’s a place of such richness too. There’s this incredible glimpse of the materials that humans have created on this world, and I think people don’t realize how many things we could do with the stuff that already exists. That’s the takeaway, I think. Moving from a scarcity mentality to an abundance mentality. 

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