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Repurposing and Upcycling Found Objects in Art - #EarthDay50

By Lori Gipson and Brooke Garcia

Terms (from Merriam Webster)

Found Object: a natural or discarded object found by chance and held to have aesthetic value (1)

Repurposing: to give a new purpose or use (2)

Upcycling: to create an object of greater value from (a discarded object of lesser value) (3)

The value of jewelry, and metal objects in general, tends to be intrinsically tied to the cost of the materials, the metal itself. However, some metalsmiths question that concept and create work with repurposed and upcycled found objects. J. Fred Woell, one of the first artists to consistently use found objects in his work, could see no reason why his pieces should be measured by the value of its materials, any more than painting or sculpture was (4). Artists such as Woell and Harriete Estel Berman use found objects to create work that work that often has a social or political commentary. Others like Andrew Hayes and Stacey Lee Webber upcycle objects that have a history to tell a new story or become unrecognizable, and some artists such as Robert Ebendorf and Mariko Kusumoto choose found objects based on their aesthetic value.

All artists repurposing and upcycling materials challenge preconceived notions. When the eye recognizes a found object, it changes the meaning and the value of that object in the work. Whereas it may have been thrown away by someone else, it is now living a new life, no longer destined for the landfill but now in a place of preservation created by the artist.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we are sharing a few artists from our Permanent Collection that feature repurposed and upcycled found objects in their work. If you feel inspired after reading this blog, join this week's #JewelryFromJunk online challenge on social media or find other projects to do on our Online Learning page.


Harriete Estel Berman (American, b. 1952) uses post-consumer, recycled materials to construct jewelry, Judaica, and sculpture with social commentary. Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, Europe, and Africa and has been acquired by 16 museums around the world. Berman was also the Metal Museum's 2004 Master Metalsmith.

This wall sculpture, entitled Delicious Assortment, is from Berman’s “The Deceiver and The Deceived” series, which she made from 1996 to 2004.  Sculptures in this series were constructed with recycled “tin” cans from post-consumer packaging.  According to the artist, “The pre-printed steel has recognizable images from our material culture. The relentless messages conveyed in media and advertising about a woman's appearance become a frame of stereotypical roles and limited expectations” (5).  The fan-quilt pattern that appears in many of the pieces in this series, also refers to the use of fans in western society as “a device of flirtatious deception" (6).


Robert Ebendorf

Robert (American, b. 1938) has been a metalsmith, jeweler, and educator for nearly sixty years.  He began recycling objects in his jewelry pieces long before this practice was fashionable or trendy.  His dynamic, eclectic jewelry typically incorporates found materials from nature, like crab claw and sea glass, as well as industrially produced objects like keys, buttons, and beer bottle caps.  His use of alternative materials challenges our preconceptions about the preciousness of jewelry.  This brooch, Keeping It in the Circle, includes found materials such as a crushed aluminum can, a metal coil, and pieces of yellow scrap aluminum.

Ebendorf was a founding member and the second president of the Society of North American Goldsmiths (SNAG).  In 1995, he was awarded the American Craft Council Fellowship for his achievement in craft, and in 2004, his oral history interview was included in the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.  His work is in many public institutions and private collections.  To hear Ebendorf talk about how he recycles objects in his work, watch this YouTube video!


Bobby Hanson

Bobby Hansson (American, 1937-2015) was a photographer, sculptor, and metalsmith. He began working with found objects in 1955, producing sculpture, furniture, musical instruments, and other works. Hansson taught classes in recycling tin and photography for jewelers all over the Eastern United States. In 1996, he wrote a how-to book entitled, The Fine Art of the Tin Can, which included not only his own artwork, but the works of 90 other artists and collectors.

According to Hansson, "I see things on the street, or anyplace, and they attract me. ...I see something and I think, shoot I could add something to that, and so I do it. Just to be funny. I mean, a lot of these things here are just stupid puns, jokes, or whatever. But some of them make a beautiful noise or it's just intriguing stuff. And so I do it just because I can't help it" (7).  Hansson made several lunchboxes out of recycled materials over the course of his career, including this Lunch Box made in 2001.


Andrew Hayes (American, b. 1981) grew up in Tucson, Arizona and studied sculpture at Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, AZ.  During his time as a Core Fellow at Penland School of Crafts, Hayes explored a variety of materials and techniques. In early 2018, he set up a studio in Asheville, NC, and continues to teach at Penland and other institutions across the country.  Hayes exhibits his work nationally, and in 2019, he received the South Arts State Fellowship, a $5,000 grant that celebrates and supports artwork being created in the American South.

In his work, like this piece entitled Crossing, Hayes repurposes books and marries them with steel to create free standing and wall sculptures.  According to Hayes, “The book as an object is full of fact and story.  I take my sensory appreciation for the book as a material and employ the use of metal to create a new form, and hopefully a new story” (8).


Mariko Kusumoto (Japanese, b. 1967), was born in Kumamoto, Japan and now lives and maintains a studio in Massachusetts.  She works in fiber, resin, and metals, and her metalwork typically incorporates found objects and is very technically involved. According to Kusumoto, “My work reflects various, observable phenomena that stimulate my mind and senses; they can be natural or man-made.  I 'reorganize' them into a new presentation that can be described as surreal, amusing, graceful, or unexpected” (9).  Kusumoto has been exhibiting her work nationally and internationally for over 25 years, and her work has also been collected by eight institutions around the world and by numerous private collectors.

Video: Mariko Kusumoto (Japanese, b. 1967), Made in Japan, 2011. Nickel silver, decals. Gift of the Artist, 2017.9.1. Video Courtesy of the Artist.

Made in Japan, a kinetic wall sculpture, depicts two Japanese women who bow to each other when the cords on the piece are pulled.  Most of the sculpture is made from recycled printed steel and nickel silver.  The piece was featured in the Metal Museum’s 2017 summer exhibition Metal in Motion, and Kusumoto donated the piece to the Museum following the exhibition. Watch the video above to see the piece in motion!


Marlene True (American, b. 1964) crafted St. Elsie, a ring and stand, from re-purposed steel, steel wire, fine silver, brass, and gold leaf.  True is a jeweler, metalsmith, and obsessive collector of tin cans and other ephemera that she repurposes in her work.  This ring and stand are part of her Enshrined series and were included in her 2012 Tributaries exhibition at the Metal Museum.

True maintains her studio practice and is also the Executive Director of Pocosin Arts School of Fine Craft in Columbia, NC.  Her work in in the collections of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, NY; the Racine Museum of Art in Racine, WI; and the Enamel Arts Foundation in Los Angeles, CA. Marlene volunteers extensively and has served on the Board of Directors for the Society of North American Goldsmiths (SNAG).


In 2015, Stacey Lee Webber (American, b. 1982) opened her own studio in Philadelphia, PA, where she sells her artwork and jewelry.  Webber was a 2011 Tributaries artist and has exhibited her work both nationally and internationally.  Her work has also been collected by the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C.; the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, MA; and numerous other public and private collections.

Webber re-purposes coins in her artwork, meticulously sawing them to create new forms.  The piece here, Abe Hex Sign #9, is a wall sculpture made from hand-sawn pennies, and the design, a classic Pennsylvania Dutch hex sign, was traditionally put on barns to ward off evil.  “As a contemporary metalsmith, Webber cherishes working with found materials whose history is physically evident. Her work is often described as meticulous, pushing the boundaries of everyday recognizable objects to the point of unidentifiable. Through material, she strives to make artwork that interests a broad range of viewers and challenges their preconceived notions of the objects that surround them” (10).


J. Fred Woell

J. Fred Woell (American, 1934-2015) was an icon in the contemporary American jewelry world.  According to Janel Koplos and Bruce Metcalf in their book Makers: A History of American Studio Craft, Woell was the first American jeweler to consistently use found objects in his work, and "he was also amongst the first to add an undertone of social commentary" (11). His work has been collected by numerous private collectors and public institutions, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA; the Museum of Arts and Design, New York, NY; and the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

Most of Woell’s jewelry is comprised of beer cans, soda tops, and any other metal object he could get his hands on.  According to Eleanor Moty, fellow artist and longtime friend of Woell, “Through his jewelry and sculpture, Fred expressed his thoughts and reactions about conditions and situations that exist in contemporary society, and he used discarded materials as a statement against the waste and excess in American culture” (12).  Social Security Alert, a large, round brooch, is one of Woell’s pieces he crafted from found objects, including a postage stamp of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a wristwatch mechanism, and a buffalo head nickel soldered to a metal banner that reads, "BE PREPARED."

Around 1970, Woell also began using disposable materials, such as eating utensils, as well as plastic toy parts and other items many people consider as trash to create molds for cast silver jewelry and small sculptures.  The other two Woell pieces we have in our collection, T-Spoon and Nile Nite Flite, are examples of this type of work.  To learn more about Woell and how he repurposed found objects in his work, read this post about Woell on our blog.


Works Cited:

  1. Janel Koplos and Bruce Metcalf, “1960-1969: Youth Culture, Cunterculture, Multiculture,” Makers: A History of American Studio Craft (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 277.

  2. Janel Koplos and Bruce Metcalf, “1960-1969: Youth Culture, Cunterculture, Multiculture,” Makers: A History of American Studio Craft (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 277.


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