How Upcycled Art Reclaims The Past Through Innovation

Art can never be divorced from history, it’s bound to the context from which it emerged. It’s perpetually involved in an open dialogue between old and new — pulling forward ideas from the past, adding a fresh spin, and pushing into the frontier with emerging techniques.

For some artists, the past is more than just the backdrop to their work, it’s the very basis of it. They upcycle the old and transform it in bold and daring ways.

Here are a few of our favorites:


Yuken Teruya’s work is achingly delicate and astoundingly precise. With the hand of a surgeon, he repurposes old items — turning them into paper sculptures that fill the viewer with awe. This is not the sort of work that leaves you saying, “My kid could do that,” it’s insanely intricate, beautiful, and also speaks to deeper ideas.

A forest born from used toilet paper rolls.

A tree cut from a Prada bag.


Coffee grounds are like gold to the eco-minded. They’re great for compost, plants love them, and, for Indonesian artist Ghidaq al-Nizar, they’re a vital tool for creating artwork. His coffee ground watercolors and sculptures have gained acclaim across the internet and opened doors for deeper conversations.

Bringing awareness to tiger conservation.

Dedicated to the children of Aleppo, Syria.


Danielle Clough — a multi-hyphenate artist who also goes by the name Fiance Knowles — weaves stunning “thread drawings” on the least likely of canvases. Her fixation with old tennis rackets is particularly fascinating. The timeworn wooden rackets give birth to explosions of color — reminding us that usefulness, like beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Blue poppy.



Erika Iris Simmons is the ultimate remix artist. Her most famous pieces use film, tape, and records to create portraits of screen and recording legends. The idea is ingenious and has led to Simmons executive producing the Bruno Mars video “Just the Way You Are.”

Her other work is similarly inspired — receipts and edges of maps become koi fish, music sheets take flight. It’s upcycling at its very best: creative and innovative.

Jimi Hendrix made from a cassette:

The famous Bruno Mars video:


Upcycling doesn’t just have to be at the artist level. Upcycled gallery spaces are also popping up, allowing us to discover art in settings outside of the old mainstays (staid galleries and museums).

The Underbelly Project — Hosted in tunnels beneath Brooklyn:

Art on Track — The world’s first art gallery on a train:

This relationship between art and upcycling is a natural fit, a logical progression in a society that creates an awful lot of waste, and a chance for creative minds to do what they do best. This creativity — whether by the artist or the venue — is exciting to witness, the next extension of art’s constantly evolving conversation with the past.

Check out new, seemingly impossible feats of recycling on the third season of Human Resources on Pivot Fridays at 7:30e/p.

This article was created as part of our partnership with RECESS.