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Duke Riley in his studio
Photograph: courtesy of Duke Riley

These radical New York artists transform found objects into art

From garbage to MetroCards, NYC’s artists are using overlooked items to create incredible artwork.

Written by
Anna Rahmanan
Shaye Weaver
Rossilynne Skena Culgan

In a city full of lost and discarded items, there’s beauty and meaning to be found in our trash.

As NYC deals with what seems like more garbage on its streets and the threat of climate change on its waterfront, an increasing amount of artists are turning to the sidewalks, alleyways and curbs to find their respective mediums. Sure, it may be your trash, but it’s their treasure.

This month, Time Out New York is spotlighting five of NYC’s sustainable artists who make radical art using found objects. Their work, piece by piece, aims to turn the effects of overconsumption and waste on their head and illuminate viewers on the imbalance in our ecosystem.

Below, meet the artists and view their spectacular work!

Meet the artists

Back in the 1700s, sailors gave intricate shell mosaics dubbed “Sailor Valentines” to their loved ones. It’s thought that artists collected colorful pink shells and glistening blue stones to create these works of beauty that sailors readily purchased.

But on beaches today, colorful pink tampon applicators and glistening blue Bic lighters intermix with the stones and shells. Duke Riley collects these pieces of plastic and transforms them into massive, modern-day Sailor Valentines. They’re staggeringly beautiful from afar and even more detailed up-close. But they also render the feeling of a gut punch: Another reminder of the catastrophic effect of single-use plastics and the peril of our environment.

“There’s less and less shells and more and more plastic,” he tells Time Out. “I was thinking about how to reflect the actual condition of the way the waterfront actually looks now.”

Riley, who lives half the year on a boat, is keenly aware of these environmental effects, and he uses his work to amplify the issue. His art is on view now at the Brooklyn Museum in an exhibit called “DEATH TO THE LIVING, Long Live Trash.” The Brooklyn-based artist uses materials collected from beaches in the northeastern United States, some even right here in NYC, to tell a tale of local pollution and global marine devastation. After we’re gone, he posits, trash will be “the artifacts of our time.”

Given his fascination with maritime folk art, Riley also creates scrimshaw, replacing the typical bone or ivory canvas with found plastics. Instead of sketching boat wrecks or whaling execs on the pieces as would have been typical to the era, he instead depicts environmental disasters or plastic company executives.

While Riley clearly has a strong point of view, he also acknowledges that plastics have become deeply intertwined with regular American life, including his own. A portion of the exhibit is designed to look like his studio, including plastic vitamin bottles, for instance.

“It’s not like I’m trying to say that I don’t use this stuff myself. I go in and get a prescription from the pharmacist just like anybody else in a plastic bottle,” he says. “I think that there’s so much emphasis on trying to distract people and say, ‘Oh, if we all just recycle more, the problem is going to go away.’ Most of the recycling doesn’t even get recycled, and it really just comes down to 25 or 30 people worldwide that are really the ones that could actually have an effect.”

— Rossilynne Skena Culgan

46-year-old mixed media artist Annalisa Iadicicco creates her work using objects that she finds all over New York, from rusty nails to corrugated metals and car bumpers.

“I just love repurposing materials. As I see, there is a second chance you can give them,” she tells us.

Originally from Italy but now a devoted New Yorker, Iadicicco started off as a photographer and slowly found her way to “rusty things,” as she says, eventually creating installations in her Long Island City studio made entirely of objects that she finds in the streets, dumpsters and Materials for the Arts—the city’s legendary creative center that grants artists access to a virtually limitless collection of reusable materials.

Among her large catalog of works is “2 Amendment,” a 2013 installation made of metal, a discarded STOP sign, plexiglass and LED lights that she came up with in reaction to the Sandy Hook School shooting the year before to raise awareness about the epidemic of violence. 

“I call it ‘artivist’ work because, through my art, I talk about things that are happening in society and my experience growing up in Naples, where it wasn’t as safe as people may think,” she explains. 

Also under her purview is the non-profit organization Blue Bus Project, of which she is the founder and artistic director. Using an actual refurbished (and blue!) school bus that she happened to find by her house years ago, Iadicicco basically brings art-related activities to public spaces all around New York.

Speaking of New York, the artist is quick to note the importance of the city within the scope of her work. “New York inspires me because it’s my home and I think that you really have to find solutions to problems within your community and your space through your work,” she says. “That’s what I try to do.” — Anna Rahmanan


For most New Yorkers, the MetroCard is a ubiquitous tool they use to get around the city, but to East Village resident Thomas McKean, it is the promise of a creative challenge.

For about 20 years, McKean has been creating mosaics and 3D sculptures using the cards, from buildings and taxis to birds and flowers.

This month, we tasked him with a new challenge: creating a Time Out cover.

“I had no idea it would turn into fixation or fascination,” he tells us. “I began redesigning the MetroCard for my own amusement, trying to figure out how many words I could find in the word ‘MetroCard.’”

Gradually, he became “entranced” with the MetroCard’s aesthetic and how the colors on the cards vary. For example, the card’s yellow can be more of a canary yellow or a dark ochre.

And eventually, he began cutting out pieces of the 10 mm thick polyester cards to create messages, mosaic landscapes and tiny sculptures.

It takes an obscene amount of cards to create the smallest building. McKean guesses about 200 cards go into making one brownstone and that 1 square inch is made of four to five cards.

“They’re an amazing material—they’re ecologically indestructible,” he adds. “I like that it’s a hard plastic so I can really build things with it. Other materials like paper and cardboard get soggy. I love the colors and how it gleams—it’s reflective. I also like having the challenge of a very limited palette. You have definitely limits and you’re stuck with them.”

And stuck with them, he is! McKean has a horde of MetroCards at home that he’s collected from the ground, from behind MetroCard kiosks and from generous donations. He won’t need to worry when the cards are phased out in favor of OMNY—he’ll have plenty to keep working with … then he’ll find something else to do, he says.

McKean didn’t set out to be a “sustainable artist,” he’s keen to repurpose trash and has become a sort of inclination.

“With something like the MetroCard, I dread to imagine the number of landfills filled with these,” he says. “When reflecting, I am happy to repurpose trash whether they’re MetroCards or business cards. You also find something funny or beautiful in it. It could be a comment on how wasteful we are as a society.” 

McKean has also created art (drawings) using lost gloves he found on the sidewalks and streets of the city and odd pieces of trash thrown in the tree bed outside his East Village apartment.

While he was more of a writer than an artist earlier in life, publishing books for young adults and kids, he truly has taken after his parents. His father was a commercial artist and portrait painter and his mother was a photographer and illustrator.

Now, as he walks his routes through the city, he finds himself with an eye on the ground just in case there’s some lost object in need of new life. — Shaye Weaver

Born in New Jersey, raised in Colombia and currently living in New York, 53-year-old visual artist Lina Puerta is very mindful of the amount of waste created by humans—and she’s actually doing something about it, making her artwork using repurposed materials she finds throughout her daily life.

“I think we live in a society where there is such an abundance of materials and goods—many of them in superb conditions that make it to the landfill,” she says. “There’s a crazy cycle of overproduction of goods that is part of the imbalance that we have created in our own ecosystem.”

Mostly sourcing her supplies from the city’s streets and local creative reuse center Materials for the Arts, Puerta has been producing visually striking works for over two decades now, including 2020’s “Mother(er),” a quilt composed of a digitally printed fabric of discarded food nets, recycled fabrics, an indigenous Guambiano belt, a T-shirt that she herself had previously worn, fake fur, shells from necklaces and repurposed buttons. 

As wide-ranging as the items that Puerta works with are, the artist takes her time with each piece she puts out, actually taking a cue from the products themselves. 

“I believe materials have energy and I’m guided by them,” she says. “I collect what I like and I don’t pick something out that I don’t think is interesting.”

The 53-year-old artist is also stimulated by the city she calls home. “I love New York for so many reasons,” she notes. “So many creative minds come together here and I am so inspired by my peers, the art and culture that the city has to offer and citizens’ open minds.” 

As for her advice for up-and-coming artists, Puerta really wants younger folks to stay calm and keep on trekking. “Follow your heart,” she says. “There are so many trends in art but you have to hold on to what is true to yourself. Don’t drive yourself crazy or you’ll burn out!”  — Anna Rahmanan

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To Joan Huggard, “nothing’s garbage”—even the bits of paint flaking off the Manhattan Bridge. 

“There’s beauty in what people are throwing out. So many of those things had a story,” she tells Time Out

The artist couples her creativity with her spirit for upcycling to turn bits of the city into precious jewelry for her business, appropriately called Citybitz. The pieces offer a way to “take a piece of the city with you,” the artist explains. “It’s New York but it’s not touristy.”

About a decade ago, she noticed a large piece of paint that had been scraped off in the Second Avenue subway station. “They’d scraped the columns because they were going to paint them, and they did not take the garbage,” she said. “I had to go back for it.” 

Then while walking from Manhattan to her studio in Dumbo, the chipping paint on the Manhattan Bridge caught her eye and she began collecting the pieces. “I’d take my slow walk over the bridge and collect the pieces and people would probably think I was crazy,” she says with a laugh. “But I had a vision.”

These paint chips contain coat upon coat of colorful paint, almost like layers of the earth. She transforms them into earrings and necklaces, carefully encasing each paint chip in resin and glass. 

“It’s like a New York time capsule. A little New York specimen,” she says.

More recently, Huggard has started incorporating reclaimed glass and mirrors into her jewelry, picking up glassware from estate sales and foraging for mirrors on NYC sidewalks. 

A lifelong maker with experience in textiles, decorative arts, stained glass and even gilding, Huggard harnesses the power of her vast experience to create timeless pieces. The mindset to re-use has long been a part of her ethos even from her childhood in Long Island going “sale-ing,” a.k.a. visiting local garage sales. 

You can find Citybitz at pop-up markets around town; she often sets up at the Fort Greene farmer’s market on Saturdays and the Grand Bazaar on the Upper West Side on Sundays. Or you can find her work online.

“A lot of things stir up memories,” she said about the Citybitz pieces. “You hear all these different stories.”

— Rossilynne Skena Culgan

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