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Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: What Makes Brooklyn Great?

December 18, 2015

Neighborhood Leaf Map | UncommonGoodsNeighborhood Leaf Maps

Brooklyn! How we love your tree-lined streets, your tiny restaurants with expansive backyards, and your many, many, many bicycles! We got our start in Manhattan’s West Village, and though we can see the Chrysler Building and a thousand tiny windows light up every night from our office window, we can’t help but get the warm fuzzies when we think about our home, the borough that brought us Coney Island, Peggy Olson, and Twizzlers.

And so, as you begin to order and receive your goods (many of which are shipped from the very same Sunset Park building where this is being written) enjoy a few Uncommon facts that make our borough so beloved.
Steel Pizza Cutter | UncommonGoods

Steel Pizza Cutter

1. Until 1898, Brooklyn was its own separate city. In order to strengthen resources and economic growth, lawmakers decided to merge with New York City. Double the bagels, double the pizza. We consider it a win.

Coffee Straws | UncommonGoods

Coffee Straws

2. Brooklyn has approximately 2.5 million residents. If it were separated from the rest of New York City, Brooklyn would become the fourth most populous city in the country. This would explain the lines in the coffee shops.

Coney Island Reclaimed Wood Coasters | UncommonGoodsConey Island Reclaimed Wood Coasters

3. The first roller coaster in America opened at Coney Island in 1884. It was known as a switchback railway, it cost a nickel to ride, and it traveled at a blistering six miles per hour. Hold on to your hats!

The Tourist Babysuit | UncommonGoods

The Tourist Babysuit

4. Coney Island also saved the lives of roughly 6,500 premature babies. In 1903, Dr. Martin A. Couney wanted to treat the infants using an incubator he’d developed but no hospital would fund his research until he had proof that it would work. Coney Island funded his study on the one condition that the research be done out in the open…in the amusement park’s sideshow. Visitors paid a dime to look through the makeshift hospital ward’s window, allowing a rare glimpse of the medical marvels. Parents of the infants were never charged for the treatment and by 1943, hospitals were finally convinced to open their own preemie wards.

Tote Along Picnic Blanket | UncommonGoods

Tote Along Picnic Blanket

5. Brooklyn’s Prospect Park makes up the borough’s largest green space, measuring at 585 acres. Frederick Law Olmsted, the same designer behind New York City’s Central Park, designed it. When asked which park he preferred, he said his Brooklyn creation was the nicer of the two. Bring a picnic blanket and a couple croissants on a beautiful fall day and we can’t argue.

Balloons Over Brooklyn Bridge | UncommonGoodsBalloons Over Brooklyn Bridge

6. Some things invented in Brooklyn: the deep-fried Twinkie, teddy bears, the roller coaster, and the first bank credit card—so pretty much, your ideal weekend.Elephant Bookends | UncommonGoodsElephant Family Bookends

7. When it opened to the public on May 24, 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world. After a year of use, some pedestrians were still skeptical about the safety of the bridge. In order to prove its stability, P.T. Barnum walked 21 elephants over the bridge in 1884.

She Believed She Could Framed Art Block | UncommonGoods

 She Believed She Could Framed Art Block

8. The Brooklyn Bridge was essentially completed by a woman. Emily Warren Roebling’s husband Washington was the civil engineer tasked with the job, but became bed-ridden after developing caisson disease. Taking over dealings with politicians, engineers, and contractors, Emily stepped in as the first woman field engineer, using her own knowledge along with input from her husband to spend the next fourteen years finishing the bridge. She was the first person to take the journey across the bridge upon completion.

Brooklyn Bridge |UncommonGoodsBrooklyn Bridge

9. The first animal to cross the bridge was a rooster. We could tell you more about why, like how the rooster was seen as a symbol of victory, but we’d much prefer to linger on the image of a street smart rooster making his way to the city.

Brooklyn Map Throw | UncommonGoodsBrooklyn Map Throw

10. In 2006, workers discovered a bomb shelter from the Cuban Missile Crisis in the base of the Brooklyn Bridge. It was filled with water, 352,000 packets of crackers, and blankets. A label inside said: FOR USE, AFTER ENEMY ATTACK. No one’s sure who exactly was meant to benefit from the high, yet low profile safe place.

DIY Embroidery Poster Brooklyn Bridge | UncommonGoodsDIY Embroidery Poster Brooklyn Bridge


11. Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge neighborhood (setting of Saturday Night Fever and birthplace of fictional Mad Men character Peggy Olson) was originally called Yellow Hook. However, after a yellow fever plague spread throughout the area in the 1840s, residents decided it was time for a name change. Florist James Weir suggested Bay Ridge and it was formally adopted in 1853.

Adventure Filter Water Bottle | UncommonGoods

Adventure Filter Water Bottle

12. The bad news: The 1.8 mile long Gowanus Canal is one of the most heavily contaminated water bodies in the nation. The good news: It’s now a superfund sight and the EPA is going to clean it up. The crazy news: We have absolutely no idea what’s growing/living in there. Even the EPA is clueless and believes the hostile environment could have spawned an entirely new species. See? Even our environmental issues are adventures in science!

Classic Home Portrait | UncommonGoodsClassic Home Portrait

13. Brooklyn loves its brownstones. We love brownstones so much that we build fake ones to house subway maintenance and ventilation sites. At 58 Joralemon Street, you’ll find a stately brownstone with blacked out windows—the only inclination that the building’s façade is…well, a façade. The building also provides emergency exits and electrical conversion for the trains. How’s that for urban camouflage?

Why You're So Awesome | UncommonGoodsWhy You’re So Awesome by Me Book

14. Some awesome people who first became awesome in Brooklyn (in no particular order of awesomeness or relevance): Jean-Michel Basquiat, Scott Baio, Pat Benetar, Mel Brooks, Steve Buscemi, Tony Danza, Richard Dreyfuss, Edie Falco, Lena Horne, Michael Jordan, Jimmy Kimmel, Eddie Murphy, Rosie Perez, Lou Reed, Carl Sagan, Barbara Streisand. Also Mario—the fictional game character that jumps on mushrooms and sometimes sprouts a raccoon tail with which to fly. Who knew?

Men's Military Field Grooming Set | UncommonGoodsMen’s Military Field Grooming Set

15. UncommonGoods is located in Sunset Park’s Brooklyn Army Terminal—the same place where Elvis Presley shipped out for an eighteen-month tour of duty on September 22, 1958.

Mason Jar Speaker & Amplifier | UncommonGoods

Mason Jar Speaker & Amplifier

Want some unofficial Uncommon Knowledge? Nothing beats the pizza, dog-friendly bars, and free concerts in the park. Also, drinking out of a mason jar while wearing flannel has been proven (no it hasn’t) to increase the enjoyment of said beverage by as much as 90%.

Maker Stories

Inside the Artist’s Studio with Barry Rosenthal

June 6, 2014

Barry Rosenthal | UncommonGoods
When our team learned that renowned photographer Barry Rosenthal calls our building, The Brooklyn Army Terminal, home to his studio we couldn’t wait to work with him on a project. Once that project–Pop Top Six Pack Glasses–was ready for our customers’ eyes, I couldn’t wait to tell everyone all about the set. Learning more about Barry’s work and the creative process that lead to the finished product got me, and the blog team, even more excited about having such a talented artist as a neighbor. Knowing that we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to check out his studio space, our own photographer, Emily, and I made the (very) short journey across the BAT atrium to see where Barry assembles his collections of found artifacts and other objects to create captivating photos.

Join us in exploring a new corner of our building by stepping into Barry Rosenthal’s studio, taking a look at some of his unique work, and finding out what goes on behind the scenes when the camera isn’t clicking.

Barry Rosenthal Art | UnommonGoods

Continue Reading…

Maker Stories

Becky Cooper: Making of Mapping Manhattan

March 21, 2014

Becky Cooper | Mapping Manhattan | UncommonGoods

An idea is a powerful thing. And some may agree that an idea can be even more powerful when it’s explored on the streets of New York City. The contagious thought ‘anything can happen’ is amplified in this urban playground. From cross walks to subway rides, if you look closely you can almost see the ideas that are planted deep in New York minds. Some people, you can just tell, are simply daydreaming while others are working to make something of their ideas–and will most likely succeed. Becky Cooper was one of those wandering, deep-in-thought souls, and she succeeded in turning her big idea into a reality.

The summer after her junior year in college, Becky got the idea for her project.  She studied literature at Harvard University and she was inspired by the novel Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. It’s a book that offers an alternative approach to thinking about cities, how they are formed, how they function, and how human nature is a constant foundation for them. For better or for worse, every New Yorker has a story of their own. Nostalgic. Gloomy. Romantic. Scandalous. Bittersweet. Happy. Becky wanted to slow people down, have them think, and share with her their special New York stories. Instead of just having conversations with those people, Becky wanted them to illustrate those stories. With the help of her friend Dan Ashwood, an animator, Becky designed a map of Manhattan and letterpress printed it.

blank mapback

At first, Becky wanted this project to be completely serendipitous and initially didn’t make direct contact with the strangers. She hid the maps, with directions for completing them and her P.O. box address already marked on the back, in random parts of the city for New Yorkers to find. She placed the maps between the cracks of the Waldorf Astoria doors, inside copies of The Catcher in the Rye at Barnes and Noble, on benches that sat on The High Line, and anywhere else she felt like anyone would be pleasantly surprised to find the small blank canvases. But as time went by she found that the maps she was distributing among the streets of NYC weren’t showing up in her mail.

Becky Cooper | Mapping Manhattan | UncommonGoods

Determined to make the idea work, Becky decided to take the bold approach of directly walking up to individuals on the streets and speak to them about her Mapping Manhattan project. In the beginning, she would just explain the idea, offer them a map, and walk away. As she approached more and more strangers, the end result of the project became less important as she began to focus more on the connections she was making. Swapping stories and creating ties became the reason she was stopping these everyday New Yorkers. She walked for hours, exploring Manhattan neighborhoods, and aimed to meet as many different types of minds and souls that she possibly could. As the weeks went by, the maps began rolling into her mailbox, proving that connecting with a person face-to-face was much more impactful than sprinkling maps in “strategic” parts of the city.

Becky Cooper | Mapping Manhattan | UncommonGoods

The finished illustrated maps were overwhelming for Becky — they were diverse, creative, simple, and beautiful. She received maps that were splattered with colors, to maps that were inked in words of wisdom or wit. She received a map of the different locations where one’s ex-wives resided, a map of a painted brick wall from Inwood to Battery Park, and a map describing the different parts of the island between “Fear” and “Relief”. The project gained so much momentum that she even received maps from high profiled individuals, such as Yoko Ono. From the beginning of this project, Becky tinkered with the idea of publishing a book of the maps. As the maps continued to roll in one-by-one, she realized that the book could actually happen.

Yoko Ono's Map3 diffeent maps

When the book was published, Becky knew that it was worth every step she took down Broadway and Houston and every avenue in between. She charmingly titled it Mapping Manhattan: A Love (and sometimes hate) Story of 75 New Yorkers.  These collection of maps, paying homage to the love-hate relationship one has with this concrete jungle, can hit a few emotional spots (from the feel-good to gut wrenching) for any city dweller.

Mapping Manhattan | Becky Cooper

“This project will always be ongoing. My P.O. box never closed. That would just be a shame.”
– Becky Cooper

Becky Cooper | Mapping Manhattan | UncommonGoods

We invite you to contribute our artist community and be part of the creative process by entering our Mapping Manhattan Contest; download and create your own artistic rendition of what Manhattan means to you. Keep it for your personal inspiration or send it in to add to Becky’s growing collection. Submit your map by May 31 for a chance to win the Mapping Manhattan book and a framed art print of your choice. 

The Uncommon Life

Mapping Manhattan Contest Details

January 1, 2014

Mapping Manhattan Contest DetailsBecky Cooper’s Mapping Manhattan Project is not yet complete. She wants you to illustrate your special New York story in a map so her project can grow, and doing so could earn you a copy of her book and a framed print of your choice. Here’s how to participate:

1. Print out the blank map.
2. Illustrate your unique New York story.
3. Say that ten times fast.
4. Mail your completed map to Becky by May 31, 2014.

Becky Cooper
PO Box 302
New York, NY 10163

Becky will choose her favorite illustration and the UncommonGoods Social Media team will contact the winner in early June.

The Uncommon Life

Uncommon Personalities: Meet Carolyn Topp

September 30, 2013
UncommonGoods Director of New Business and Product Development Carolyn Topp
Carolyn Topp, UncommonGoods Director of New Business and Product Development
My hometown is…
I grew up in Ardsley, NY, also home of the late great ice cream magnate Tom Carvel.

My favorite product we’ve developed at UncommonGoods is…
Always something new that will soon be in our assortment; this month it is “My Life Story – So Far.”

I’m inspired by…

My guilty pleasure is…
I don’t believe in guilt.

An uncommon fact about me…
I was a cellist in Harry Alshin’s junior string orchestra (Westchester County, NY). We performed a concert at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC (in the early 1970s) and each member of the orchestra was listed in the Congressional Record.

My favorite place to eat in New York City is (was)…
Florent– it represents a time and a place in NYC that no longer exists.

My style is…
My personal style is urban practical and classic.
My decorating style is eclectic – a mix of old and new, colorful, and comfortable for people and pets.

Working at UncommonGoods, I’ve learned…
Something new each day.

Would you rather… Spend a day on the set of Mad Men OR get front row seats and backstage passes at a Bruce Springsteen concert?
“You cannot be serious” (to quote John McEnroe) with this question. Bruce.

The Uncommon Life

Mixtape Mixed Drinks: Manhattan Cocktail Recipe

September 11, 2013

The Manhattan is a classic New York cocktail, so of course it inspired a playlist of classic New York songs. The Manhattan’s a sophisticated drink that evokes images of the city it’s named after during the Mad Men era. (Don Draper typically drinks an old fashioned, but we could see him drinking this as well.)

The drink can be made with Bourbon or Rye–my Manhattan is made with Bourbon.

Manhattan Cocktail Recipe | UncommonGoods

Sipping a Mahattan in a Mixtape Glass can put you in a New York state of mind, no matter your location.

The Drink:
2 parts bourbon to 1 part sweet vermouth
1-2 Dash bitters
Maraschino cherry (optional)

Place ice in a cocktail shaker and then add bourbon, sweet vermouth and bitters. Shake and pour (strained) into a chilled glass or pour over ice. Top with a cherry (optional).

The Playlist:
1. Incident on 57th Street-Bruce Springsteen
2. Spanish Harlem-Ben E. King
3. Positively 4th Street-Bob Dylan
4. Take the A Train-Duke Ellington
5. New York State of Mind-Billy Joel
6. New York City Serenade-Bruce Springsteen

Maker Stories

All the Love for James Gulliver Hancock

August 22, 2013

james gulliver hancock

Since I was five years old, drawing distorted family stick figures and doodling all over notebooks has been a permanent hobby of mine. I still catch myself drawing in office meetings or on those too-long subway rides. Not that I’m talented at all, I just love the way a pen feels against a blank piece of paper. It’s as natural as eating or sleeping to me. So when I got the chance to interview someone who literally makes art and drawing their living, I was beyond pumped, especially since that artist just so happened to be the inspiring  James Gulliver Hancock. He’s a passionate, quirky artist who re-imagines his world around him into an urban whimsical fairy tale and claims to be sick when he’s not holding a pencil in his hand. 

Over here at UncommonGoods, we only have tremendous love for James Gulliver Hancock. (And kind of just love saying his name.) He collaborated with us to design his “All The…” drawing series and made some pretty sWHEAT graphics for our beer steins. He juggles living in between Sydney, Australia and Brooklyn,New York and everywhere else in between that fits into his family’s career paths and hectic schedules. He says, “We sometimes feel like a creative gypsy family circus, making videos and pictures and music as we travel around the globe.”

His most current project is drawing All The Buildings in New York. I was lucky enough to be invited to his current studio, which is conveniently New York City itself, and watch the drawing mastermind work his magic. We met under the Washington Square Monument, and right away I spotted him in his bright red pants, looking up towards the sky, in full concentration holding his weapons of choice: a pen and a notebook.

James Gulliver Hancock

I love your art work, especially the products we have here at UncommonGoods. What exactly ignited the “All the…” series?

It all started with traveling, I always keep a journal when I’m traveling, and I usually draw more than I write. I often found myself drawing the objects that I obsessed over in different places, or the things that dominated my experience. When I started road tripping around America I was drawn to draw different things I found in different places. I love concentrating on certain things and learning everything you can about that thing. If you’re drawing boats, you get to know all the types of boats. If it’s cactus, you see there are so many types; drawing really makes you look deeply at things. It’s like people that collect things, I admire that kind of focused obsession… the guy that knows everything about 1950’s salt and pepper shakers is a fascination to me.

James Gulliver Hancock

 What made you realize that drawing was what you wanted to do as a career?

I knew from a very early age, from a little boy I always drew. An early memory is from pre-school when we had to rotate between activities (drawing, puzzles, napping), so when I got to drawing I devised the most complicated drawing I could think of so I wouldn’t have to do the other things any more. I’m still like that, figuring out my life so I can draw as much as possible.

James Gulliver Hancock

Can you describe the moment when you realized “Holy crap, I’m actually doing this…!”

I have this almost every day. It’s so awesome to be drawing everyday and have people around the world, appreciate and love (and pay for!) what I do. I’ve also managed to integrate travel and a family into the fold of awesomeness too. My wife is a musician and we are often on the road, me with a portable studio to keep working. We sometimes feel like a creative gypsy family circus, making videos and pictures and music as we travel around the globe!


You  live an aspiring artist’s dream and have traveled and showcased your work everywhere in the world: New York, Australia, Japan, France, England…the list goes on! What’s your secret?

Making stuff all the time helps, and telling people about it all the time. Being an artist requires you to be pro-active in making and then showing your work. People aren’t necessarily going to ask you to do something. A lot of the time you have to just do it and show them what it could be for them to get excited. Travel is essential, too; with the internet you can get a lot of international exposure without leaving your home town, but by being in a place, your energy shifts. You might meet someone and links begin to happen. Sometimes people I’ve met for half an hour while traveling becomes a client years later.


Where was your first exhibition held? How did you feel the day of? (Were you basking in all your glory, dissecting every single problem, or heading to the toilet to re-compose yourself?)

I was definitely hiding in the toilet room. Some of the reason I’m an illustrator is so I don’t have to perform in crowds! I’m doing lots of talks now for my new book and have to get up in front of lots of people, and I find it terrifying! But it’s fun also. I do love having this solitary process that also comes out into the world and interacts with it. As for my first exhibition, it was probably when I was a kid and I filed my family into a room that I prepared with things on the walls. It felt natural to me to ‘perform’ in this way, more natural than other kids doing fake TV shows or something.

All the Buildings in NY

Where do you go or what do you do when your inspiration is completely lost?

Wandering is the best. I went for the longest walk around Manhattan yesterday and saw, heard, smelt so many things. Consequently the ideas are flowing! I also seem to get inspired when I’m going to sleep and waking up, when the constraints of the day have faded away and the brainy mush floats around with new ideas.

photo (1)

On your site, you mention that you feel sick when you’re not drawing. Other than not drawing, what else makes you sick when you’re not doing it. 

Riding my bike clears my mind for sure. I can ride and ride and ride, and feel so peaceful, even in Manhattan. It becomes like a computer game, dodging the obstacles. The rhythm of riding is so hypnotic. But drawing every day is really what keeps me happy. If I can’t draw I have to make something else, whether it be cooking, or craft or something, making stuff is what I do.

Beer Steins by James Gulliver Hancock

What’s one of your all-time favorite quotes?

“Color tells it all, black and white tells just enough to stir the imagination.” It’s by an Australian photographer, Max Dupain, who took a lot of amazing black and white photos. I love the idea of sharing just enough with the viewer to get them thinking too. To leave room for them to bring something to the image– their own associations.

Do you have any secret vices that causes immense procrastination? How do you monitor this vice?

Luckily drawing is my vice, and because it’s my work I don’t have to monitor it, the more I do the better! Other than that, I shouldn’t eat so many chocolate muesli bars and cake, but hey, that’s what the bicycle is for.


Are there any major projects, collaborations, or ideas you’re working on now that you want to talk about?

I have a 1.5 year old son and have so many ideas for children’s books that I haven’t had time to do yet. I also have a new book coming out in 2014 that will be amazing. Stay tuned!

What’s one piece of advice you have for that person out there that has a creative passion and can’t seem to make a career out of it?

Keep doing it, keep making projects and publishing them somehow (print, web, whatever) and then show them to everyone you can think of.

QUIFF – redux from James Gulliver Hancock on Vimeo.


El Anatsui: All That Glitters Isn’t Gold

May 14, 2013

Like most Americans, I’m pretty unaware of artists who aren’t American or European. Embarrassing but true: interpreting the art of very different cultures takes work, and I tend to approach art (as I do most things) impatiently, wanting immediate pleasure. So I’d never heard of Ghanian-born, Nigeria-based artist El Anatsui when the Brooklyn Museum opened his first solo exhibition in a New York City museum. (Which runs through Aug. 4, 2013.)

El Anatsui, Ink Splash, photo by Aaron Bunge

Ink Splash, 2010 – Photo by Aaron Bunge of Aesthetic Perspectives

Gravity and Grace (detail), 2010, photo by Aaron Bunge

Gravity and Grace, 2010 (detail) – Photo by Aaron Bunge of Aesthetic Perspectives

Now, thanks to Kevin Dumouchelle, Associate Curator of the Arts of Africa and the Pacific Islands at the museum, who organized the show, this lazy ethnocentrista has been gifted with a reward she didn’t deserve: a broad, deep encounter with overwhelmingly spectacular art. Totally accessible on a number of levels, El Anatsui’s work drew me in, motivating me to spend much more time learning about it than I normally do at an art show. I went twice. I watched all the videos. I never do that.

Afor, 2010

Afor, 2010 – Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

I thought this show would be of interest to the UncommonGoods community for two reasons: first, because it bridges the same fertile territory between “art” and “craft” that a number of pieces in our collection do, and second, because we love art made of recycled and upcycled materials. El Anatsui is perhaps the maestro of this practice.

Drainpipe, 2010 and Peak Project, 1999 – Photos by Aaron Bunge of Aesthetic Perspectives

Using tools ranging from chainsaws and welding torches to improvised small crafts tools, he has marked, joined, and shaped materials ranging from yucca graters and railroad ties to driftwood, iron nails, and obituary notice printing plates. More recently, he has focused on condensed milk can tops and used aluminum liquor bottle caps, with various brand names, from a distillery in the university town and contemporary art mecca of Nsukka, Nigeria, where his studio is.

Red Block, 2010 – Photos by Aaron Bunge of Aesthetic Perspectives

Anatsui prefers not to call what he does “recycling,” and in fact, the connotations of that word are too narrow in the context of his work. The discarded materials he uses are so miraculously transformed into beautiful, shimmering, sumptuous works of art that his preferred word, “metamorphosis,” does seem more apt. At least one critic has dubbed it “alchemy,” and I can totally see why. (They’re metamorphosed into money as well; at least one piece is rumored to have sold for about a million dollars. So UG will not be offering his stuff any time soon, unfortch.)

Earth’s Skin, 2007 – Photo by Aaron Bunge of Aesthetic Perspectives

The show I saw (twice!) at the Brooklyn Museum consists of 30 works in metal and wood, the largest and most visually dominant of which are huge, mosaic-like, hanging tapestries made of the aforementioned bottle caps.

Earth’s Skin, 2007 (detail)- Photos by Aaron Bunge of Aesthetic Perspectives

A tremendous amount of meticulous craftsmanship goes into every tapestry, as you can see in this short Art21 video. Each is composed of thousands and thousands of aluminum liquor bottle caps. Anatsui’s 40-odd assistants cut and fold the caps into a seemingly endless multitude of shapes. “For each new pattern or texture that I’m introducing,” explains the artist, “I have to show them how it’s done. Because I find that, as an artist, if you don’t maintain physical contact with handling the material… the work might end up not having a soul.”

Earth’s Skin, 2007 (detail) – Photos by Aaron Bunge of Aesthetic Perspectives

They then painstakingly “sew” them together with copper wire, patchwork-style, in a dazzling variety of color and texture groupings, Many depict traditional Ghanian symbols and patterns, while also evoking the history of the African slave trade, in which liquor was a commodity that Europeans exchanged for human beings, as well as the contemporary reality of global consumption and waste. Surprisingly, Anatsui received his early education in a Presbyterian mission with a European curriculum, and was isolated from his own culture until, in his late teens, he decided to “indigenize [his] consciousness” by immersing himself in Ghanaian culture. That probably at least partly explains someone like me found his work so easy to engage with.

El Anatsui creating his wall installation, Gli (Wall), 2010 / Commission, Rice University Art Gallery, Houston, Texas / Photo: Nash Baker ©

El Anatsui doesn’t like to tell curators how to hang the pieces, so they have to be strong from every angle, as there’s no way to predict what kind of stress any given area might sustain. Before uniting all the sections of a piece, his crew pulls each section this way and that, to test their strength and make sure they’ll withstand being hung and re-hung in indoor and outdoor installations around the world. Without this careful craftsmanship, Anatsui’s brilliant, painterly compositions couldn’t perform their artistic function for long.

Black Block, 2010 – Photos by Aaron Bunge of Aesthetic Perspectives

There’s no way to adequately describe in words or photographs how stunning, and varied, his work is. Some of the hangings, pieced of solid color blocks of flattened parts of caps, are monolithic and imposing, even though they’re made of what’s easily recognizable as garbage. Some, made of cap parts shaped into circles that are loosely woven together, are semi-transparent, and hang above and around you making the room you’re in look transcendentally magical, as if dust motes had turned to gold.

Gli (Wall), 2010 – Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Brooklyn Museum photograph

Photo by Aaron Bunge of Aesthetic Perspectives

One of the most amazing things about his work, to me, was that usually in the art world, consumer items, brand names, and garbage are used to say something negative and depressing. We’re meant to be reminded of the way consumer culture and advertising infiltrates nearly every aspect of our lives, usually degrading the environment in the process. When I see this kind of work, I often think, “I didn’t need you, Mr./Ms. Art School Graduate, to tell me about this. We all already know it.”

Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

But Anatsui’s work lifts you up and inspires you in all sorts of ways: artistically, environmentally, physically, and, dare I say, metaphysically. Anatsui shows us that the possibilities of re-use to create value of all sorts are unlimited.

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