Friday, September 4, 2009

Creating Sculpture Out of Old Clothes

New Yorkers send 386 million pounds of textile waste to landfills annually, according to a study conducted by the Department of Sanitation. At the “Green Brooklyn... Green City” fair and symposium, held by the Council on the Environment of New York City (CENYC), this alarming fact will be visualized through a day-long sculpture demonstration conducted by artist Derick Melander.

Melander, with a group of volunteers, will carefully fold and stack 3,615 pounds of recycled clothing into a five- by seven-foot cube over the course of the conference, which runs from noon until 6 p.m. “It will be a race against the clock,” he said.

The figure 3,615 — calculated by CENYC’s Office of Recycling Outreach and Education (OROE) and Brooklyn-based clothing recycling company Wearable Collections — represents the pounds of textile waste New Yorkers create every five minutes, Melander explained. He noted that textile waste comes from the residential waste stream: clothing textiles, non-clothing textiles (towels, carpets, furniture cushions), sneakers and leather goods. It does not include textile waste from the industrial/commercial waste stream.

Wearable Collections is donating the clothes for Melander’s sculpture. Through a partnership with CENYC, Wearable Collections has a presence at several greenmarkets throughout the city. Over its five-year life span, the organization has diverted over one million pounds of New York City’s textile waste from landfills, said founder Adam Baruchowitz.

The sculpture will be made up of four stacks of clothes, with only the weight of the clothes and lateral supports keeping the structure intact, said Melander. Clothing will be divided by color into four categories: blues, warm colors, cool colors, and blacks and grays. “There’s no gluing or sewing and no treatment other than Febreze every once and a while.”

He will set up a large folding table for volunteers, using a template that indicates the dimensions of the fold, which vary depending on the garment. A sweater dictates a smaller size than a cotton shirt, because when stacked it will compress and become wider.

Folded garments will then be passed on to volunteers who, overseen by Melander, will build the sculpture. “It will be Ford Motor car assembly line-style,” he said.

Volunteers (which are still needed) can fold for part of the day or the whole six hours. Those who stay for the duration will receive a free watercolor painting by Melander, he said.

He previously collaborated with CENYC through OROE for a fundraiser to which he donated two small artworks. But Melander has been constructing clothing sculptures for more than seven years.

Having “no natural affinity for clothing,” Melander says the material found him while he was working with found vintage suitcases. “I thought they needed to be up on a pedestal,” he explained. Not wanting to put them on plain white pedestals, he decided to construct bases out of piles of clothes.

“Working with all that clothing, I started to get interested in clothes,” Melander said. He would sometimes find notes in pockets or be able to detect the lingering smell of someone’s cologne on the garments he has used.

“Clothing has this natural connection to the people who wore it,” he said. “I’m making artwork that’s like a collective portrait... it’s a symbolic gesture where I’m compressing the space between people.”

And since the clothes in his sculptures are not attached, just stacked, they can be taken apart and recycled into new pieces.

“I’m eco-conscious as a person,” he said. “It’s part of who I am and naturally ends up having a place in my artwork as well.”

Melander’s demonstration will send a clear message, illustrating how much clothing is sent to landfills. “It’s important that people understand the magnitude of the issue,” Baruchowitz said. “It’s important for people to see it.”

“Green Brooklyn... Green City,” at Brooklyn Borough Hall on September 24, will run from noon to 6 p.m. with opening remarks at 11:30 a.m. To volunteer for the fair, e-mail To volunteer for Derick Melander’s sculpture demonstration, e-mail the artist at

The work in the top photo, called Compression, is constructed of 800 pounds of carefully folded, second hand clothing, crisscrossed around a central spine, and is from the collection of Farshid Assassi. Bottom photo is called The Ocean is the Underlying Basis for Every Wave, 1,859 pounds
of folded clothing. Photos courtesy of Derick Melander.

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