New York’s garbage artists have learned not only to live with dirty streets, but to embrace them as part of the city’s landscape and even to profit from them.
“Garbage is the most abundant natural resource in New York City,” says Robert Lederman, president of a street artists’ rights group, ARTIST. “Thousands of artists, including Jackson Pollack, used paint found in the garbage,” Lederman says. “Picasso used ‘trash’ to make sculptures.” Lederman himself uses cardboard found on sidewalks for signs and makes all of his art displays from garbage he finds on the streets.
Another long-time member of ARTIST who also uses litter found on city streets in his work is Jack Nesbitt. “The philosophy of my work is that what people throw away is something that I use,” Nesbitt says. “What people think of as useless, I like to put some use to it through my imagination.”
Nesbitt, 67, calls himself a street artist. He uses cardboard that he finds on the streets to create paintings he describes as playful and abstract, “a reference to Bauhaus, Paul Clay, Feininger, Kandinsky.” And he says there’s always a story to go with the illustration.
Nesbitt also creates sculptures using objects he finds on the streets, such as identical green bricks of Styrofoam. “I used the wedges and put them down on the sidewalk and made an inverted staircase on the ground. And then I cut some cardboard and labeled the piece with a price. Of course it didn’t sell,” he says, “but that’s okay, too.”
Nesbitt says that he lets the litter decide what his art will be. He walks the streets, waiting for something to catch his attention, something that can ignite his imagination, and then the wheels start turning. “The way I work is that I don’t look for special things, I let the things find me. Sometimes they’re disparate objects that don’t fit together. But if you are able to put them together and play around, you might find a visual connection.”
Nesbitt says this process of finding things by accident is “something very personal to you and you engage your spiritual inner life, taking whatever you find, to make something, to make a story, to tell a story and to share that with other people.” In the end, he says, “The artwork is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Nesbitt takes his commitment to the streets one step further in that he sells most of his art there, describing it as “free enterprise at its best.” At 67, he says, “I’m too old to really be on the streets, but there’s a certain vitality that I get by being there. There’s so many street artists that are inventing things that have never been seen before. The ideas are rampant out there.”
Some might question whether trash has artistic value, but Nesbitt is an enthusiastic defender of garbage as art. He says, “The fact that it’s just on the street and the fact that it’s made from garbage or what people throw away, it’s just as much a vehicle for expression. So much of what I consider art or what the public considers art is legitimized by putting it in the surrounding of a museum or gallery.” But he insists, “It doesn’t need the gallery to be called art or a creative act.”
Still, Nesbitt has to pay the bills. “I have an agent for the first time,” he says. “I have a gallery and it might be that I am going to show my work. It is on 57th St., which is a pretty good location.” It won’t be the first time he has shown his work in a gallery. He says the first time was a one-man show in Albany, New York, 15 years ago.
Whether he’s in a gallery or on the street, his mission is the same. “I don’t consciously go out and think I’m going to save the world by picking up garbage and putting it together and selling it. That’s not my intent. The only conscious motivation I have is the intent to use what most people discount, most people don’t need, and to create something that stirs a little interest.”