The Art of… Creative Reuse | Kids VT | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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The Art of… Creative Reuse 

Nearly every inch of wall space in Lisa Divoll-Painter's large art studio at South Burlington High School is covered with colorful paintings, drawings and mobiles. But her advanced art students — a mix of sophomores, juniors and seniors — have recently finished a more unconventional assignment: They've transformed materials bound for the landfill into games, clothing, sculptures and objets d'art.

Their projects, which took several months to complete, were inspired by Chittenden Solid Waste District's annual Creative Reuse Showcase competition, which challenges Chittenden County high school students to turn trash into treasure.

During a visit to the high school in March, some of Divoll-Painter's students' recycled creations were laid out around the studio: a bicycle-wheel dream catcher; a dress constructed from bubble wrap and milk-bottle labels; and a tree-shaped mosaic made with CD fragments and beads. Some works weren't there because they'd been selected for CSWD's annual exhibition at Burlington's Frog Hollow.

Divoll-Painter, whose students participate in the competition each year, introduces the concept of creative reuse by bringing a collection of her own junk into the studio for the kids to see. She dumps fabric, bottle caps, computer parts and metal scraps into a heap in the center of the room. "It starts out as just a disorganized pile of stuff," she says.

Then she shows her class samples of students' work from previous years, and they watch "The Story of Stuff," a short animated documentary about the detrimental effects consumerism has on our world.

The teens then get to work, figuring out what they'd like to create and which materials to use. "So often in art class we say, 'You're making this,'" Divoll-Painter explains. Creative reuse is much more open-ended.

Senior Kindra Lundie says the assignment came naturally to her — she's been digging through the recycling bin for art materials since she was little. This year, she created a fancy gold chandelier out of hundreds of spray-painted, flattened beer-bottle caps she procured from Magic Hat Brewing Company. Hammering out each and every cap was "tedious," she says, but it was rewarding to make "something pretty out of something gross."

For some students, the assignment's open-endedness proves challenging. "It's harder than you think to come up with an idea," says sophomore Aster O'Leary, who ultimately decided to make the CD mosaic. She laughs as she describes hitting the CDs with a hammer, shattering them into little pieces that flew all over her clothing. "I didn't know they would be so difficult to break," she says.

As a teacher, Divoll-Painter loves the project because, she says, it encourages problem-solving skills and gives her students the opportunity to exhibit their work in a juried show.

It's also a chance to celebrate kids whose work is nontraditional, even a little wacky. "Artists, fashion designers and techies don't always get their chance to shine in school," says John Powell, school outreach coordinator for Chittenden Solid Waste District. "This showcase offers an outlet to show off how smart and creative they are."

artist: victoria southwick

artists: sonny monteiro, meghan cleary, elaine Corrett

Want to try a creative-reuse project at home?

For authentic upcycling, Chittenden Solid Waste District school outreach coordinator John Powell encourages kids to use "true trash," meaning materials that can't be easily recycled. Think potato-chip bags, corks, markers and pens, AA batteries, Styrofoam and bottle caps. "When you do art out of [recyclable] cans, it's downcycling," he explains. "It pulls from consumer use."For more information about Chittenden Solid Waste District's school and youth programs, contact John Powell at 872-8100, ext. 211 or

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.

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About The Author

Alison Novak

Alison Novak

Alison is the former managing editor at Kids VT, Seven Days' parenting publication and writes about education for Seven Days.

About the Artist

Matthew Thorsen

Matthew Thorsen

Matthew Thorsen was a photographer for Seven Days 1995-2018. Read all about his life and work here.


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