Dust to Dust

Recycled pavers made at University of Oregon

Recycled pavers made at University of Oregon

Of all art media, ceramics seems the most organic.

Beginning with something as humble as dirt, the artist grapples with gravity, centripital force and atmospheric issues, finally birthing a piece by firing to temperatures that mimic molten lava. Ceramicists, troubled by the paradox of using earth resources to create earthly pieces, were among the first to establish procedures for sustainability. Ceramics as an art form depends on shared resources, and not surprisingly, ceramics recycling processes are being created to solve larger, community issues.

At the University of Oregon, a dialog between faculty, staff and the community on reducing the environmental impacts of the art program led to a glaze waste recycling program more than ten years ago. In the UO ceramics glaze room, there is no running water; students instead use a series of rinse buckets to clean utensils, and the insoluble glaze waste is later reclaimed after siphoning off the water. Today, one of the first tasks for beginning ceramics students is to fire paver bricks made by combining the recycled glaze waste with waste clay. The perforated bricks are about 10 inches square and 2 inches thick, and fire to a rich apricot color. The pavers are used around the school and are also donated to members of the community to teach students not only about environmental stewardship but about generosity.

In California, since 2004 the Integrated Waste Management Act requires large state agencies to divert 50% of solid waste from disposal. At Humbolt State University in Arcata, fired ceramic waste generated by students is being collected along with other masonry-compatible sculpture waste and taken to Kemen Construction, a local company that crushes and grinds masonry and waste for use in building foundations. The university saves money with this system, because solid waste disposal rates far exceed the cost of transporting the masonry debris to the recycling site.

Shippensburg University’s drip feed system for waste vegetable oil.

Shippensburg University’s drip feed system for waste vegetable oil.

Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania is the location of an innovative program to create a kiln system using renewable fuels. The process began by processing waste vegetable oil from campus food services to create biodiesel. A grant from the University Foundation allowed research into vegetable-oil-based fuel burner systems for kilns, and a local company donated fire brick for construction of the kiln. The kiln was engineered to work with different burner types and today, students are exploring vegetable oil, biodiesel, and glycerin as fuels. Faculty are also exploring the use of solar cells to charge a small battery bank and human bicycle power to charge a small motor which powers the blowers and burners — in an effort to completely remove the system from the power grid and dependence on fossil fuels.

It just takes community and a shared need to create a solution; not surprising that ceramicists — people used to countless unpleasant surprises, constant problem-solving and the un-glamour of always being dirty — can be at the forefront of the action.

 Tess McMillan, Gallery Space

NCECA, the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts, will be holding its conference here for the first time in the Pacific Northwest. In March, educators, and community from all over the Puget Sound basin will gather together to celebrate the heights of ceramic artistry and to share new ideas and processes. Bellevue College will be hosting two events: a teapot exhibit and a lecture by Gloria and Sonny Kamm — a couple who have put together the largest teapot collection in the world with over 17,000 examples (including many antiques.)

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One Response to Dust to Dust

  1. Linda t says:

    Thanks for this encouragement in our efforts to make Bellevue College more sustainable. I think the art department should try to be a leader in this endeavor. We’ll try to use less water, less paper and make less waste. Let’s brainstorm on what to do with our creative mistakes.

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