Filomena Cruz: On Trash Art

Filomena Cruz” is my nom de plume for “Maite Zubiaurre.” Presently I am writing a book on urban refuse and litter titled Talking Trash: Cultural Notes on Urban Refuse, under contract with Vanderbilt University Press. My interest in all things discarded has not only generated a number of scholarly publications and talks, but also two undergraduate seminars and one graduate seminar featured in the UCLA Press (Daily Bruin; UCLA Today; UCLA Magazine). Visits to landfills and artistic interventions on campus (among them, a “trashion show” featured in the YouTube video “United we Trash”) are part of this new pedagogical adventure.

Garbage has propelled me into the direction of “artivism” and artistic practice beyond the classroom. In 2016 I initiated the artistic intervention, called “The Wall that Gives/El muro que da” that conciliates my interest in the cultures of the discarded and the grim reality of immigration and the border crossing experience. (The Wall that Gives/El muro que da” was featured in The Argonaut.)

As a reaction against so many walls that separate and generate hostility and pain, I created “un muro que da,” a “wall that gives” on Pacific Ave (between Breeze Ave and Brooks Court) in Venice CA. It is a long, grey wall with a small 7×7 niche in it, al modo de las hornacinas o pequeños altares que guardan los santos y las Vírgenes de Guadalupe en México y en nuestros barrios latinos de Los Angeles. One the wall, and in big chalk letters, one can read “El muro que da/ The Wall that Gives,” with an arrow pointing to the hornacina/niche. Every day, I leave one of my 4×4 trash art tiles in that niche, and every day, somebody takes the tile, and very often, leaves something in return. These are some of the dádivas that the niche has housed so far: two bananas; a tightly folded black T-shirt; a lollypop; an orange with the inscription in Spanish, “hecho en Venice;” five dollars under a stone (this has happened twice); quarters, nickels, and pennies; a box with cough drops; cigarettes; a kiwi; a bag of nuts; a candy bar; a beer can; an apple; flowers; and a cigarette case with marihuana leaves.

I don’t take any of these presents, I leave them there for somebody else to enjoy. I don’t know who takes and gives when walking on the narrow sidewalk along el muro que da. One day, though, I received the following gmail (Filomena Cruz’s gmail–Filomenecruz@gmail.com— is printed on the back of the tile):

“Hi there!
This is out of the blue but I wanted to tell you thank you for something. You don’t know me & I don’t know you but one day I was walking home down the street and wasn’t having the best of days and came upon a hole in the wall. I saw your piece if fine art that captured my attention and it was the one that had trash cans on the beach with many colors in it on the tile piece. I picked it out from the hole and thought “what is this?.” Little did I know that as my mind wondered into the art piece that I found myself no longer bothered by my “bad” day. Your art had taken my mind off of something negative and turned it into a positive. How could trash cans be so awesomely artsy and cool?! I felt a bit hesitant to take it home with me, but I did. In return I left $5.00 under a rock in the hole and hopefully someone walking by in need would find it. Again, thank you. Keep up the beautiful work you do. It makes a difference. Best, Kyle.”

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Both in my scholarly work and in my art I make a point of looking at urban refuse at its early stages, when it is still tiny and unassuming, and has yet to grow, leave town, and accumulate elsewhere. Trash as litter and as city-bound miniature is what intrigues me, much more so than the monumentality of piled up garbage or the gigantism of faraway landfills.

Thus what you will find in my art, among other critters, is flowers made of tiny pieces of scrap metal; castoff chairs displaying an air of forlornness; tennis balls turned into octopuses, of the kind that never dies or decomposes; dumpsters simultaneously wheeled and chained, once free, now enslaved; and one particular trashcan, so intensively blue and plasticky that it looks like a toy, showing up again and again in many of the art pieces.

I am foremost a collagist, and a photographer only because I like to cut and paste my own pictures and use them as the prime material for my collages. My working tools are quite straightforward: a phone with a camera; a color printer; a scanner; a pair of scissors; a glue stick, like the one used by kindergartners; acrylic paints; and a rich supply in trash and thrift stores. I am particularly fond of the whimsical variety of frames one can find in the latter, and often integrate them into my art.