News / Edmonton

Landfill art: Edmonton painter scrounged through trash for latest exhibition

Julie Witten-Land will give half the proceeds from her paintings to impoverished families in Gardena, Mexico.

Julie Witten-Land put together an exhibition of paintings incorporating landfill items she found in a poor Mexican community.

Kevin Tuong / For Metro

Julie Witten-Land put together an exhibition of paintings incorporating landfill items she found in a poor Mexican community.

Landfill trash can be a lot of things to a lot of people.

For residents of an impoverished Mexican community that Edmonton artist Julie Witten-Land found herself in, the discarded items were a lifeline.

Living with no clean water, sanitation or electricity, families in Gardenia make their livelihood rummaging through their local landfill to find scraps of metal and found objects that they can trade in for small cash returns.

For Witten-Land, the trash was art.

Or, at least it soon would be.

She visited the community, a short drive from posh resorts in Puerto Vallarta, on a family vacation, wanting to gain a first-hand knowledge of the poverty she had only seen in passing.

“I knew that I wanted to go to a place where I could visit these poor communities and not just sit in a resort and drink Mai Tais,” Witten-Land said.

With help from missionaries who also served as translators, she started meeting with families and going out to find landfill items she could incorporate into artwork.

The aim was to create 20 paintings, each using a different salvaged object, for an exhibition that would give 50 per cent of the proceeds to the Gardena families.

“I asked them, do you have anything fun or interesting? And they were laughing going like, ‘What the heck, this girl’s crazy,’ ” she said.

Community members graciously helped her find an array of items including a head of a watch, metal wire, a pair of scissors, a piece of teal-painted wood, corrugated cardboard and plastic shards off a car.

She incorporated the items into pieces that are marked by bright colours and bold brush and mark-makings.

“I left them in their raw, unaltered state," she said.

“I wanted to be as true to the Mexican peoples and their found pieces, and what kind of colours they find out there.”

Five months later, Witten-Land, who works under the name Salted Studio, will showcase the pieces at her Paintings with a Purpose exhibition in Calgary starting Aug. 12.  

She hopes the art makes people stop and reflect on what they have in life, and think twice before grumbling about petty problems.

“To see that found object within that painting, I want it to serve as a regular reminder to be grateful for what we have here,” she said.

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