Checking in on Planet Earth – A Q+A With Four Recyclables Artists

We interviewed Joel Stockdill, Yustina Salnikova, Portia Munson, and Corinne Loperfido on their practices, preaches, and possibilities.

If you had to describe your art practice, how would you describe it?

Joel: I think I would say my art practice has been an exploration of intuition and discovery. I am a self-taught artist, so I never went to any academic realm to tell me what is art or what is my creative practice. I just always had felt a strong draw or calling to that creative work. And I think the constant act of experimentation has very much been a leading, driving force behind my art and my relationship to art. It's been a wild, wild journey, but one that has consistently blown my mind as far as my expectations. Much of my work has been in collaboration. I always preferred to work with others and share ideas and skills and learn and teach others who don't have those same skills.

It's always really supported me. It felt like the more I pushed myself outside of my boundaries, the more I was supported to continue that, encouraged by the universe, you could say, so I feel really blessed in that way.

If you had to describe your artistic practice to an alien from outer space, how would you explain it?

Yustina: Welcome to this earth dear friend from a far off galaxy and thank you for being curious about the things I make. I know it's a bit confusing, but here on earth the humxn beings have a very strange relationship with their planet and themselves. I make art to try to help myself and all the other humxns remember how everything is interconnected and that all parts of being are precious. I hope they can see my art and remember to see beyond their humxn stories and dramas and remember their connection to the magic of the universe. Also we have an interesting thing called waste here, where we deem parts of the things we make as unworthy or "unuseful". It is a ridiculous concept indeed, and I use this stuff to make art to try to help humans remember that waste is a human concept and that there is no waste in the systems of this planet or for what I know of in the universe.

Portia: The reason why I'm an artist is because I make sense of the world visually, so of course I'd be showing those aliens visual examples to explain my thoughts.

But the gist would be that the dominant beings on Planet Earth are humans, and these beings have too much stuff -- much more than they need. (I think of "stuff" as mostly non-essential things that people fill their homes and lives with.) Stuff has become associated with status, wealth, and comfort.  

Humans have made this stuff a dominant part of their culture and economy. However, most of it is not made to last. It breaks easily, wears out fast, and is replaced with new stuff because "new stuff" is considered best and has higher status.

As a way to try and make sense of this pattern of brief use and discarding, I collect those castoffs and organize them, trying to discover larger messages about who we humans are and what we believe in. My work also considers how all of this throwaway stuff travels very fast all over the world, with disregard for its effects on the oceans, land, and sky.

Corinne: In human society today, everyone is required to "contribute" something to the greater group in order to earn "money". Based on each individual's social class and skillset, they must sell their bodies and souls to the highest bidder in order to generate this "money" so that they may exchange goods and services and survive. Here on earth, the situation is very grim. The humans have gotten lazy, greedy, and unappreciative of the gifts that grow from the soil of our planet, because this System based on making the most "money" has caused the humans to deplete much of the Earth's natural resources. The way that I earn "money" and "contribute" in this society is called "Making Art". In my role as an Artist, I scavenge in many strange and dirty places where my fellow citizens of this falling world have left things they once owned, hoping it will disappear so they don't have to deal with it anymore. Humans are in denial about the situation and how much they contribute to the perpetuation of this "money" system, and so that is why I make "Art" out of the scraps and discards of this shame-filled society - to hold up a mirror and hopefully help the humans see that other ways are possible. The materials I use to make my "Art" are always changing, because the humans are constantly using more and more of our less and less available resources, so there is (sadly) a never-ending supply of materials for me to choose from. With each new "Art" that I create, I want to remind the humans of the beauty that it is to be alive, and inspire them to think about things other than "money" so that they may start to worship these other things; the things that come straight from the Earth before the System got its evil hands on it.

room full of pink objects and all the furniture is covered in pink fabric with pink hanging from the ceiling
Pink Project by Portia Munson. Courtesy of Portia Munson and P·P·O·W, New York

When and how would you say that environmentalism started kind of dictating your art?

Joel: It's more a rejection of consumerism. Early on, I recognized how deeply American culture was just being really force-fed that you're nothing unless you're buying and purchasing, and a lot of my art was an expression of that. The way of making things from reclaimed objects that are not recognizable as trash is a piece of magic. I think the more people are creating and not contributing to that endless cycle of consumer waste, the more people recognize that they don't need to participate in that.

And that was one of the big realizations behind building Ethyl and using 5,000 pounds of post-consumer waste, we were really investigating what recycling really was and how it has been marketed to us as consumers. And it's really disturbing. It was never created to be a successful system. It was more like a psychological bandaid for everyone to feel good about continuing to be wasteful, and recognizing that we are being manipulated in that way is a pretty big awakening, and it's encouraging to try and be more zero-waste.

I guess there's the world where there's so many people that are very concerned about our environment, and to me, it's almost like when you really look at how our world and how our waste streams and cycles are, you don't really have to be an environmentalist or an activist to understand that everything is really not good in that regard. Most people, all they need to do is go for a walk on the beach or in the woods to see all the waste we leave behind. It's more and more disturbing the more you investigate it.

Yustina: My background is in environmental science policy and management, as well as sustainable environmental design formally. That's what I have degrees in, and I was a huge activist in college and very much working on environmental and social justice issues and for me, a lot of the things culminating from studying those theories and studying how all of these different factors are related in the big work of environmentalism, because I think environmentalism is a huge term and it gets generalized a lot.

So I think through my practice and through the way I've been relating to art, after learning all those theories and being in that field, one big thing to me was we have a lot of things that would make our relationship with the environment healthier with the natural world and with our human world, with each other, because I think there's a lot of aspects of environmentalism, traditionally, it's economy, equity and environment is how a lot of the structured forms talk about it. And I think the inner relating of that is how I look at my art and just look at all those factors, we have a lot of the tools that we need to make a lot of the transformations. We have a lot of the technology, but we need to change our minds and the way that we think about and relate to these concepts.

I have been bringing in a lot of concepts of like eco philosophy and environmental feminism and looking at what is beyond like traditional environmentalism and how do we include different factors. I think before it was a lot about fixing and putting out issues, but at this point I'm pretty much over the fixing narrative, I don't want to be telling anybody what to do anymore. It's more become a very personal process of again, processing my own grief and processing my own eco anxiety and my own environmental footprint.

And in that way, I think that conversation means more to me now than being able to show anyone a certain message of pollution and the impacts of our waste stream on the environment. It’s really, really important, still very dear to my heart, but I'm in this place in my life where I want to tread lightly on that and take a more like post activism perspective of just sitting with the trouble and sitting with the problems instead of trying to come up with solutions right away, because I think a lot of the fixing mentality is kind of at the root of how we deal with a lot of these environmental problems.

There comes a point where everyone's telling everybody what's better and I have a better solution, I know what to do, and I think that's a really big root of our colonial controlling mentality, which I think is really rooted in a lot of our environmental and social issues. And again, that's coming from my personal experience and not something I want to put on anyone else. So this art has really become that conversation. How do I sit with all of this waste and look at it and transform it into something new and magical and inspiring for myself, and if that's inspiring for other people, that's beautiful and exciting too. And I think the animals in particular help bring in this relationship of how environmentalism is related to our controlling of the wilds and how I want to unleash that and to be present with the wild nature of being and the wildness of life.

And I think animals and creating animal forms, especially species that are native to an environment or have something to do with a story or a narrative really ties that together, where for me personally, where we can take things that are discarded and not wanted by other people and turn them into something that is magical or a creature that was once lost in the land or something that's endangered or something that's kind of struggling in the land, or even not, even just thriving, I think it connects our environmental impact be beyond the human, and I think that's a really important thing for me and, yeah.

Portia: The state of our environment feels to me like the most pressing, overarching issue of our time.This is our only home, it's so central. So much of my source material is discarded stuff, but even though I'm always dealing with castoffs it still shocks me when I drive down the highway and see roadsides littered with trash, a lot of which won't decompose in our lifetime. Not to mention the much bigger situation of the roads and the infrastructure that we use that’s all made from toxic materials and cris-crosses our planet, cutting off migration pathways as well as many other negative implications. There's something so disturbing about that. It has to do with respect. I think a disrespect for the earth and where we live goes hand in hand with disrespect for women and other undervalued people. In that sense, all my work -- even the more overtly feminist work -- is still connected to environmental issues.

Corinne: Materials, specifically whatever materials are nearby and available are what inspire me. I am not the type to sit down with a sketch pad and draw something out, then go to the big box stores and buy all the supplies to make something new. My art is not always existing in the physical world either, a lot of my work is experiential and intangible in that it involves the co-creation of poetic moments through human interaction. In that way, I will make things using physical objects and create an environment for people to come experience something in with other people, or with themselves in relation to the art, but for me really it is about the interactions that takes place as a result of the art, more than it is about the actual physical objects that I make.

CDs and floppy disks covering the walls with a box of old remotes and scrabble letters spelling out " We are living n a fools paradise"
Detail Shot in Trash Temple. Courtesy of Kennedy Cottrell 2021.

How do we do better by the Earth?

Joel: We all have a real power to change things and to identify when things don't feel good or have an obvious negative impact. And I think part of it is just learning to be in our power and in our strong voice to be able to, whether you work for a big company or you work for yourself, to be able to call out what doesn't make sense, and it's usually pretty obvious when something is having a negative impact.

I don't think I'm in a position to tell anyone how to live their life, and... I think when someone has that interest or that calling to be more aware of the impact they're having on their life, it's sort of a path in itself, just to try and cultivate that awareness. It doesn't have to be preachy or it doesn't have to be some Earth-shattering campaign. It's really more humble than that.

It's how we each live our lives and how we each are paying attention, and I think a lot of that is kind of the core of our struggle now. And the current culture we live in, it's just very much a culture of distraction. We are constantly encouraged to become distracted by all the different things, and the more that we are distracted and not paying attention, the more wasteful our lives are, the wasteful ways that we live.

Yustina: I think my invitation to folks is to sit with the trouble and sit with really uncomfortable feelings, because for me a lot of answers are universal and generalized, and I don't want to be in that, I invite everyone to be in their own journey and process with that conversation. And that's really the invitation for me. How we do better by this earth is by actually sitting with that question and asking, how do I do better? And how do I be a better ancestor? And it's in terms of good and bad or situational, and they're personal to every person in every place.

How do I do better by this earth is by being present with all the complexities and not necessarily jumping to quick solutions, because these problems to me are very complex and deep rooted and are super multifaceted. And to be able to sit with that and not be in the anxiousness of having to fix it and solve it right away could actually open up avenues for even like more solutions that we would never, ever have imagined, and solutions that we couldn't even think were possible, and couldn't even come up with in this point and to really trust that sitting with that, there's bigger workings at play. And of course, I think like for me, I try my best to think about where all my things come from, how I'm relating to basically every moment of my life.

It's like when you're running the faucet, where's that water coming from? Are you thinking about that? Or are you just running it and not thinking about it? Like little things like that and to be present with that and to be even like present with, hey, I'm throwing away this piece of trash and where is it going? What am I dealing with? How do I take care of it? And no one's perfect, because I think we're all living in a system where it's really hard to be a perfect environmentalist or whatever, because it's not easy. To be waste free, for example, is really complicated and hard and often takes privilege, or you have to have the correct stores around or not every place offers that. So I think getting tied up with the perfectionist of being the best person you can be can be a trap, even though it's a really important thing also. So I think we can do better by the world by just trying our best, honestly, trying our best and to be really present with what you're doing and present in how you relate to things. And it's as simple as that.

People think it's so complicated, but it doesn't have to be.

Just try. Just try and love. Love trying and love the mistakes that you make and don't beat yourself up about it. There's a lot of need to change the way we produce and push companies to change the way we have our waste stream, to push for more circular economies and advocate for that where you can and do that work and engage in it. But if that's not available to you, that's okay, I think doing better by the earth is also doing better by yourself, like for yourself, and tending to your conversation with nature and your fellow beings, because we're part of nature. Like we're not not that.

How do we actually love each other more? That's a big thing. How do we see beyond division and sit with each other more, despite whatever it is, political difference or gender difference, racial difference. How do we actually sit with those things and be like let's engage this instead of pushing it aside. Because I think that's the biggest message or conversation, how this ties into waste for me is a lot of the things, they're hard, so we push them aside or we throw them away. We're like, we don't want this in our backyard. I don't want to deal with this in my head, in my life, my whatever. So I'm going to cast it aside and I'm not saying there's no beauty in letting some things go, that's important too, but I think there's that connection with how do we waste people, waste ourselves, waste time, what is our relationship with waste and to really transform that is there ... just sitting with that is for me a way that we can do better by this earth or with ourselves.

Portia: I believe it's important to question what it means to be successful, and question what we are striving for. Maybe we all need to live with less and not connect material possessions so much with happiness and our identity. We vote with our dollars.

Corinne: First of all, think before you buy and think before you throw "away". We vote for the world we want to live in every single time we buy (or don't buy) something. We are not on this Earth to have college debt, storage units full of stuff we don't use, and starbucks in a plastic cup every morning. Everybody is stuck between a rock and a hard place - needing to make money to be able to stay alive, but then being so overwhelmed and depressed about how bad things are that we never try and change anything because the thought "where do I even begin" brings on paralyzing feelings of guilt / shame / fear / despair / etc. Making art from trash is not even going to make a dent in the amount going to the landfill, I know this. We can all do better by doing everything we have access to and the capacity for. Composting, not buying things that come in packaging (as often as possible), not leaving your utilities running when you're not using them just because "I pay for it so I can do whatever I want," buying used clothes and repairing things we have instead of buying new synthetic clothing from fast fashion brands, carpooling, not getting takeout + delivery in disposable packaging, planting a garden... there are so many ways to change our behavior and get pleasure from things that take more time. In order to change the world, each person has to change their perspective and the way they relate to objects, to their place in society, and to the way they give and take from the Earth in a real and direct way.

large whale sculpture made of recycled materials with a dark sky and clouds in the background
Ethyl the Whale by Joel Stockdill and Yustina Salnikova. Courtesy of Kate Russell 2019.

Who or what inspires what you do?

Joel: I've been super lucky to have had lots of mentors. And some are other artists, and trash artists, and people that I've worked with that have, through their own personal practice, shown how deeply important it is to continue to practice that and to have that daily practice that you are showing up for, whether you have a a commission or a project or not, and so I've been really, really lucky in that way.

In the type of art and crafting and building that I do, I'm really a lot more inspired by sort of craft that's more indigenous cultures, all cultures before the industrial revolution, like whether that be indigenous European cultures or Native American cultures, like the simple materials being used to create absolute majestic beauty, and whether that be in art or in functional objects. That sort of DIY culture of being able to use anything in your surroundings to create whatever you need in your life or whatever you're inspired to create. And so in that way, I'm much more inspired by archaic crafting and art than I am by fancy tech or the new waves of art.

Yustina: Let me think about it. I mean, So many beings, so many people, so many ancestors, so much of the natural world. So many teachers, I'm trying to think of who to name, but yeah, I think really is, deeply, it's like my relationship with spirit, my relationship with how I relate to the world, is what really inspires me. But definitely there's a lot of artists, a lot of activists, a lot of thinkers and fighters, which I could also send you a bigger list. But more recently I've been really working with the work of [inaudible 00:20:03] and The Emergence Network, which they're an amazing group of thinkers as well as just my friends and my communities and the work of like Joanna Macy and a lot of other ecofeminists like that inspired me. I might have to think about that more if particular people, but honestly everything.

Portia: I've known I was an artist since I was a little girl and for me there's always been a certain amount of both explaining and making sense of the world through creating art. I'm inspired by my experience of nature or horrified by things that I see happening to the natural world. There are other artists, including instructors I had in school, who have definitely inspired me to do what I want to as an artist. I was fortunate to have some really good artists, like Vito Acconci and Martha Rosler, as instructors. Some of Vito's work was just so out there and I had him as a teacher when quite young, so being a rebellious person questioning how far I could go, observing his practice felt really freeing. Seeing amazing art shows, even if they are obscure and might not get any press, also inspires me. But I'm mostly inspired by the world around me, which includes going to flea markets and junk shops in search of readymade objects that are more amazing than anything I could think up. I was recently in Louisville, KY. installing my piece The Garden at 21C, and visited several "peddlers' malls," which are abandoned K-Marts or Walmarts that have been repurposed with hundreds of booths where people sell their castoff stuff. I'm fascinated by the subtle regional differences of what people buy and discard. (The Garden is a room size installation that will be on display and open to the public at 21C in Louisville KY through the end of 2022.)

Corinne: I am inspired by the creation of poetry in motion, those moments of transcendence and bliss that happen in wild and free spaces where anything feels possible. Growing a community is a group effort of co-creation because we all need each other for so much, and to stand in the knowing of what can be created by a group of people built on a foundation of genuine friendship is so much more powerful than anything someone could create alone. I want to make spaces for people to remember how to laugh, how to cry of joy or sorrow or both at the same time, how to feel like their most creative selves, and to truly tap into what makes them feel alive outside of all the stereotypical visions of "success" and "normalcy" as it is portrayed through the consumerist lense of the Social Media Industrial Complex. My work disrupts the dominant thought pattern and opens people up to other possibilities that are actually much more tangible to them than they may realize, if they would only allow themselves to step in a slightly different direction.

A room covered with flowers of all kinds with a patchwork ceiling and light coming through like a tent
The Garden by Portia Munson. Courtesy of Portia Munson and P·P·O·W, New York.

Are there any other new projects on the docket?

Joel: We have a commission that we've been working on for months throughout this move. We're building a family of quail. They're about six feet tall, the mama, and two quail chicks. This is for a new development area that's happening in California, they've booked a lot of public art and purchased one of our other sculptures right before we left, a dire wolf that was named Sheila. And that's one of the projects where they had a big renovation going on, and so we were actually able to reclaim a lot of the materials from their demolition to build the quail sculptures out of, so that's really fun. And what we often try and strive for whenever there's a commission or someone who wants to, reaches out to have a piece built, we try and incorporate as much of the actual material for their land from their land, whether it's from demolition or projects or just waste scrap lying around.

And we have a few other projects that we've been in the proposal phases of too, but I feel we're really blessed to have a whole summer of work ahead of us. It's a really amazing feeling to know that we have projects that are going to keep us busy and provide for our lives and yeah, just really, really grateful for that.

Yustina: We're going to be installing a piece at the Festival of Whales at Dana Point next weekend, March third through fifth, but I guess this article will be out after that. We have the Quails in Somo Village in April. And I'm trying to think of what else we are doing. We might have a fun international project on the horizon that we can't really talk about yet, but that's a fun teaser.

Portia: I am currently working towards a solo show titled Bound Angel at PPOW gallery in NYC that opens in July of 2022.

The center piece of this exhibition will be a large sculpture titled Bound Angel, in which individual found figurines including angels that are tied with ropes and string. They’re arranged together in a tight mass on a large oval table, draped with used wedding dresses as a tablecloth.

This show is part of a larger project called Functional Women in which I gather and work with representations of women including  representations of parts of women’s bodies . A lot of the objects have a function for example a bell in the form of a women in a long dress, a mug in the form of breasts, or a planter in the shape of a woman's head. Through amassing and arranging these objects, I'm exploring and commenting on how these individual objects also function as models of cultural expectations around beauty, purity and sexuality.

I'm also preparing a solo exhibiting Flood at Art Omi in Ghent, N.Y. opening June 25 and running through Sept. 25 . Flood, is a large installation made up of thousands of discarded blue plastic objects organized in color gradients to mimic the flow of water, flooding across the gallery floor. All the blue plastic objects that make up Flood have been collected from roadsides, streams, beaches, landfills and recycling facilities. I made this work thinking about the environmental impact of plastics on our oceans, waterways, and the world.

Different bodies of my work have explored the color coding of plastic and how it is used for marketing purposes.

Through collecting and working with blue plastic I’ve come to see that the color blue is used to sell and signify the idea of clean clear water, sky and air in plastic commodities.

Corinne: Right now I am wrapping up my tiny home video series for my Patreon page based on the tiny home art studio I built for myself last year, and trying to finish up many different projects that I've already started before starting another huge thing. After 2+ years off from doing events, I am planning my first parties again this spring in Austin, Texas and starting to think about future permaculture puppet shows, performance art dinner parties, and what feels relevant and worthwhile to bring into the world at this time. I post on my instagram about upcoming events and new things I'm working on.

Is there anything else that you wanted to add in there?

Joel: Just encouragement to anyone. I know Meow Wolf has a huge following of people who are inspired but may not be creators themselves or artists themselves, and I guess from my own place, I just want to encourage anyone who is inspired to create to not be held back by thinking they can't do it because they don't have training or they're not artists or they don't have the schooling, some of the greatest artwork in the world has been created by novices, people that have just committed themselves to expressing themselves through whatever means. And so I would support anyone listening to really investigate that and to go for it.

Share image: Trash Temple by Corinne Loperfido. Courtesy of Kennedy Cottrell 2021.