One Man’s Trash

by Hassan Alhejaili


Nobody talks trash quite like Curtis Goldstein, a 47-year-old visiting artist who resides in Columbus, Ohio. Similar to the legendary Phoenix rising from the ashes, Goldstein’s unique and stirring art pieces come from objects he finds in the trash.

Curtis Goldstein is contributing to the clean-up of trash, as well as promoting art in the community. Although Goldstein began his career as a painter, painting murals and sculpture were some of his early art mediums. He says the first time he actually started using trash in his art was in the 1980s when he created large works of bricolage, combining everyday objects to suggest autobiographical narratives. He later abandoned that method of working to pursue representational painting, creating images of his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, and capturing the everyday environment.

Goldstein spent a couple of years at the Columbus College of Art and Design. In 1990, he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Ohio State University. This past April, Goldstein received his Master of Fine Arts from the University of Cincinnati, Department of Designs, Architecture, and Planning. Goldstein is currently an Adjunct faculty member at Ohio Dominican College in Columbus, Ohio. Goldstein was a visiting Artist in Residence at Antioch for the Summer term, and taught two classes, Drawing and Painting, and a Special Topics Course titled Ends of Trash.

For over forty years, Goldstein has lived in Columbus. After several life-changing events occurred, he felt that it was time to make changes in his life and in his work, so he decided to go back to graduate school. Upon moving to Cincinnati, Ohio to further his educational goals, he was struck by the between in the manicured and gentrified Columbus urban environment and the rough-edged Cincinnati urban environment.

One of the main visual differences between Columbus and Cincinnati are the topographies, with Columbus rather flat, and Cincinnati quite hilly, and the number of dilapidated buildings in Cincinnati versus Columbus. While it seems Columbus has a tendency to demolish old structures, replacing them with new ones, Cincinnati has an abundance of old buildings, with many of them being in disrepair. Goldstein stated that seeing the huge difference in the two landscapes awakened something in him and inspired him to create art from the urban trash, fragments of Cincinnati’s urban environment. He looked to the alleys and streets in urban Cincinnati to find objects to turn into art pieces. Goldstein states the art created from trash is not only reflective of the environment, but also of a materialistic society and its inner psyche.

He further states that his collages and sculptures are all related to the environment and how society consumes natural resources. He sums up his art as being reflective of how he feels “in a ‘trash culture,’ where people seek instant fulfillment by satiating their environment and their senses with a lot of stuff, without regard for the consequences to their health, the planet’s health, or the future.”

Goldstein creates his work from post-consumer materials made originally from natural resources. He said, “things are man-made, but it’s all coming from nature.” Goldstein further intimated that the world’s problems are big and art can’t do much. He feels it can, however, create a dialogue between people about important issues facing society, which, in his view, is at least as important as making beautiful things.

Goldstein stated that the reaction of people to his trash art has been mixed. Some people see the humor in it, some of them like it, and many have a different perspective altogether. He says that he typically works on rather large pieces, with many of the art pieces being site specific installations. Goldstein usually works alone, but he also involves himself in group projects because he believes in the deliberative process as a means of solving problems shared by the many.

Goldtein’s Jelly-fish Bloom installation at McGregor Hall in Antioch College is one such collaborative effort. Goldstein stated the Jelly-fish Bloom has been especially popular due to the current problems with the world’s oceans. The display occurred as a result of the discussion in the Ends of Trash class he taught. He display consists of 150 different hanging jelly-fish made from various found objects, a good deal of it being made from plastic. The installation conflates two major current issues – the recent population explosion of jellyfish in the oceans that is wrecking the ecosystems and decimating the fishing industry, and the accumulation of plastic materials in the oceanic gyres.

One jelly-fish is constructed from a clothes basket. Another is made from a discarded hand vacuum cleaner. The overall display is full of different colors, textures, and designs. Photographs of Goldstein’s jelly-fish installation may be viewed here.

Another art project Goldstein mentioned was a community quilt made from plastic shopping bags fused with heat. Volunteers designed, cut, and fused pieces of plastic shopping bags, creating unique patches to be sewn together and displayed at various locations in Yellow Springs. Other works by Curtis Goldstein may be viewed at his website.

An interesting problem that Goldstein faces when teaching his Ends of Trash class at Antioch College this summer was that there is very little trash to be found in Yellow Springs. In fact, for the jelly-fish installation, he found it necessary to bring two truckloads of trash from outside Yellow Springs for the students to use. Goldstein added that, while an excess of garbage might not be a local problem in Yellow Springs, it is a global problem about which students should be informed.

The subject of Goldstein’s work has been mining the material stream to uncover humanity’s physical and psychological conditions and dispositions, given their habits and behaviors. Goldstein’s trash art is a critique of treasure and materialism, and people’s desire to collect and hoard.

Goldstein’s art has truly been like a phoenix rising from the ashes. He has not only been able to create art from discarded items, but has also managed to make the public more aware of these urgent environmental issues. It can truly be said in this instance that one man’s trash has indeed been another man’s treasure.


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