The Art of Recycling | The Reader's Guide Feature | Chicago Reader

The Art of Recycling 

Old paint, bike parts, table scraps--if it's something you don't want, Kevin Kaempf can probably turn it into something you do.

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Kevin Kaempf's clothes are splattered with paint, but not because the artist is working on a picture. He's at Mess Hall, a storefront space in Rogers Park, recycling latex paint. He pours a gallon of Martha Stewart Arbor Green through a cloth strainer into a five-gallon plastic bucket while six unopened cans of the same brand and hue wait in line. "Somebody bought them and decided they didn't like the color," explains Kaempf. "Ultimately I'll have about ten buckets filled with different greens. Then I'll mix all those buckets so they're a consistent color. That will be the green that gets repackaged and redistributed."

For this project, called Collection Continues, the 32-year-old Kaempf put up flyers in the neighborhood soliciting leftover latex paint, which he then collected from donors. He separated the cans by color and, for three days each week, mixed similar hues together. People walked in and dropped off more paint or took some home, gratis. Color-coded quarts and gallons--blue, red, yellow, violet--were displayed on shelves and labeled with the logo for People Powered, the umbrella organization Kaempf launched two years ago to cover projects that combine art, environmentalism, and community activism.

Kaempf has two more community-minded projects planned: Pocket Gardens, a network of neighborhood gardens growing organic produce; and Shared Chicago Blue Bikes, for which he'll secure a fleet of used bicycles, paint them blue and stick the People Powered logo on them, then deploy them at Blue Line stations for commuters to use and return. Three prototypes debut on Sunday, August 29, in the Hyde Park Art Center exhibit "Fine Words Butter No Cabbage," which also features work from the art and language journal WhiteWalls. If all goes as planned, the bikes should be in place sometime next summer. After that Kaempf says he'll pull the plug on People Powered and move on to something new.

Kaempf's first experiment with paint recycling was in 2002, when he collected 78 gallons of latex from people's homes and mixed it all together. "It created this brownish gray color, a warm muddy gray that ended up looking like chipped cardboard," he says. Kaempf repackaged the paint in quart cans with labels that included an essay on excess, waste, and reuse. They were displayed and given away the following January during an exhibit at Gallery 400 called "Color Value."

Later Kaempf heard that some people had used the paint, and he redesigned the project to be more useful--and more complicated. "I wanted to see if it was going to be possible to make more desirable, more appealing colors than the random gray brown that could get used," he says. Kaempf, who lives in Edgewater and works as regional programs coordinator for the American Bar Association's Section of Labor and Employment Law, began accepting paint for Collection Continues this past winter, and he'll keep doing it for the rest of the year. But, he says, "The green that results now will be different from the green that will result, say, four months from now. . . . Each time it's distributed it's like a special line of color, a limited edition of paints."

Kaempf has hit on an admittedly modest, low-tech solution to a persistent ecological problem--the disposal of unwanted latex (water-based) paint. People often purchase more than they need--the average household stockpiles one to three gallons a year, says Kaempf. "Most of it enters the waste stream improperly. The worst-case scenario is that people will throw a gallon or a half gallon in their trash can, and then it gets thrown in the landfill." Latex paint isn't terribly toxic, but in its liquid form it can seep into sewers and rivers and contaminate groundwater. To help reduce the surplus, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency advises consumers to use up or donate leftover paint, to properly store it for later (by placing plastic wrap beneath the lid and turning the can upside down so air can't get in), to consolidate cans, or to add absorbent sand, sawdust, or kitty litter and let it dry before throwing it out.

Latex paint that's less than ten years old and hasn't been frozen can still be used. Leftover oil- and chemical-based paints present a different problem: since they're much more toxic than latex they should be brought to household-hazardous-waste sites (call the city's Department of Environment at 312-744-7606 for more information). The IEPA lets citizens drop off leftover latex paint on specified days each month at 20 participating retailers and facilities--the closest one to Chicago is in Oak Park--where it's picked up by a waste hauler and taken to Minnesota or Ohio to be recycled.

The city is working toward having a year-round drop site for both latex and oil-based paints, says DOE spokesman Mark Farina, but it's an "involved process." City recycling director Christopher Sauve says the facility ought to be open by early next year.

Kaempf isn't trying to compete with these government programs. "They do a much more scientific reprocessing," he says. "They'll collect a lot of white, a color people buy a lot of, and add a concentrated pigment. Because it's commercial-grade paint, they have to make it consumer friendly. What I'm doing is the bare minimum, because of the man-hours."

Besides, it's art. "I wanted to use paint as an example of how we might be able to reuse waste, or think about it differently," Kaempf says. "Presenting it in an art context raises the visibility of how [reuse] functions culturally. Hopefully it'll encourage other people with different backgrounds and levels of involvement to come up with unique solutions to widespread problems."

While Kaempf, who grew up in La Grange, was getting his MFA at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he met Chicago artist Brett Bloom. In 1997 Bloom organized Dispensing With Formalities, a project where a number of artists made objects that were distributed from unused newspaper dispensers around Chicago. When it was reprised in Champaign the following year, Kaempf participated, freezing one-cent stamps in ice cubes and placing them in a vending box outside the post office--it was winter, just before a rate hike. "I had in mind the idea of freezing the postage rate in place," he says, "and I wanted to create a package for them that's good for the environment. . . . That was the first time I made something in a public context."

After graduation Kaempf moved to Chicago and joined Bloom's art collective Temporary Services, whose mission was to organize public art projects outside of conventional art spaces. In 2000 TS set up the One-Week Boutique, where people could take used clothing donated by members or exchange it for their own clothes. The group later did a more elaborate version of that project for an exhibition in Puerto Rico--they created sculptures of used clothing on clotheslines placed on city beaches and in town with signs that said "100 percent off" in Spanish.

But Kaempf wanted to do longer-term projects in the public sphere that involved exhibiting, and he left the group in early 2001. He came up with People Powered as a way to brand his activities. "I didn't want it necessarily to be associated with an individual artist," he says. "If it appeared like an organization, it would carry more weight."

One early project was a composting network. Kaempf asked residents in Logan Square, where he was then living, to provide kitchen scraps and yard waste. He packaged the resulting compost in hundreds of palm-size organza Compost Tea Paks, which were distributed at "Soil Starter," a May 2002 exhibit at I Space gallery. A pack was to be steeped in a watering can, and then the nutrient-rich "tea" applied to household plants or outdoor areas. A pack could be used several times; when done, it could be broken open and deposited in a planter or garden. (Kaempf is still giving them away.)

While walking to a Bjork concert last year in San Francisco, Kaempf spied a paint drop-off site on a pier, sponsored by the state of California. He did some research and learned that Chicago didn't have a similar program. Earlier this year, after Kaempf sent out e-mails announcing Collection Continues, he was surprised to hear from a DOE staffer to whom someone had forwarded the message. "They wanted to know if I'd be interested in letting them promote it," he says. He told them he wasn't--he feared he'd get more than he could handle--but he did permit the city to refer people to him if anyone called asking what to do with their leftover latex paint.

Kaempf's compost and paint projects were both supposed to be short-term. "I just wanted to propose and jump-start each thing," he says. "Because it's just one person basically organizing everything, it's beyond my means to sustain them." But because there has been good response, he's decided to keep them running in a "loosely organized" way at least through the end of the year. "And then they'll officially end with my involvement," he says. "If they can continue in some way without me, then that's great."

Kaempf thinks this could be possible given the recent growth of spaces and collectives in Chicago that support experimental work. "Young artists--or not necessarily that young--can explore and develop ideas very quickly and implement them without an institutional framework," he says. "There's all these smaller outlets with low overhead and a loose structure and, because of a community network, they can get the word out . . . even if they don't have a high visibility at the national level."

Since the 1980s Chicago-based artist Dan Peterman has worked with recycling systems and postconsumer materials (see Fred Camper's review of his show "Plastic Economies" at the MCA in the reviews section). Now Kaempf and his People Powered projects are starting to gain attention too. "Kaempf represents the next generation of socially conscious artists," says critic and Evanston Art Center curator John Brunetti. "His ability to solicit interactions from audiences inside and outside the art community is one of his most distinctive strengths as an artist."

"There are artists who tackle environmental issues just in proposal form," says Kaempf. "For me, the challenge has been to go beyond a proposal and try to implement it."

The Shared Chicago Blue Bike prototypes are part of the exhibit "Fine Words Butter No Cabbage" which runs through October 2 at the Hyde Park Art Center, 5307 S. Hyde Park, 773-324-5520. For more information on Collection Continues or Compost Tea Paks, see or e-mail Kevin Kaempf at

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Joeff Davis.

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