I was not expecting the invitation that arrived in Berkana’s inbox late last year to give an upcycling workshop for 100 of Redken UK’s top clients. I still haven’t any idea how the company learned about our work to re-imagine trash but the practice fit well with the theme of their 2011 annual conference: Inspiring the Future. At first, I wasn’t sure about working with Redken, given that it is a big corporation that their profit generating activities do not likely include dumpster diving.
One of the key principles that we have been using within the Upcycling Initiative is to start with the waste we generate ourselves. So it was a little frustrating when our contacts at Redken UK explained that it would be impossible for conference participants or organizers to source waste for the workshop (given that they were flying from England). In the end we came up with a great solution upon considering the types of waste generated in this industry. Magazines are something found in nearly all salons and they are also a versatile and beautiful material to upcycle. Though we recognized the challenge of bring waste materials in bulk, we realized that if each participant brought one or two magazines that they were ready to get rid of we would end up 100 – 200 magazines.
The workshop in January was a personal challenge because magazines are not a medium I had worked with in the past. I had to learn two entirely new techniques in a few short months. The workshop included three projects – paper jewellery, baskets and bowls. The group of participants was divided into 15 teams of five, and there were five teams working on each of the three projects. The workshop was intended as a group-building session and to encourage collaboration between participants who did not formerly know one another. This made the experience fun for me since teambuilding dynamics are something that I enjoy hosting. I was available to offer tips and advice to participants during the hands-on portion of the workshop, but essentially I laid out a few guidelines and left the stylists up to their own devices to create something together. The “rules” included things like: work must be done collectively, a concrete product must be produced and there was a time limit of one hour. I also pointed out that teams had a limited set of tools to work with and I encouraged groups to make decisions about how they wanted to divide the labor and make the best use of materials before beginning.
I was pleasantly surprised when the majority of the people a) chose to participate in the workshop on the sunny rooftop of the hotel and b) were truly engaged in their teams and committed to creating things together from waste. Participants made necklaces and earrings adorned with the flowers from the tables, a beautiful bowl to hold a wine bottle, many baskets and bowls, and even an upcycled brassiere. At the end we took a few moments to reflect on the experience. Though it was a challenge to gather the energy on the rooftop, a few commented on the experience of working in teams, the importance of clear instructions. My impression was that the participants in the conference really enjoyed the experience, were happy to be let loose from the dungeon-like conference room, and that many genuinely worked together as a team. What impacted me the most, as it often does regardless of the audience, is the infinite creativity of human beings. Even in non-ideal circumstances, in which we fear that people may be more reserved or concerned about what others will think, our creative nature finds it’s way out.
There is another significant story related to the Redken work in San Diego that was as important, if not more, than the workshop itself. As I mentioned, I was somewhat concerned about the sourcing of magazines locally. Though we requested that the conference organizers communicate to the participants about bringing along a magazine or two, I knew there was little chance that we would have enough this way. About a week before leaving for California I did some research to find out if there was anything like the Re-Store in Berkeley (a place that collects and sorts waste of all kinds and sells it to artists, teachers and others). Though I didn’t find anything quite like that I came upon a woman by the name of Erin Pennell who owns a business called the Rare H.A.R.E. Studio. She does arts and crafts workshops with kids using trash. I wrote to Erin to find out if she knew where I might be able to track down a few hundred old magazines. Within the hour she had written back wanting to know more about the workshop, me, upcycling and the upcycling portal.
Erin said that she could likely track down the magazines, but that she would like to be able to participate in the workshop in return. Though it didn’t seem like that great of a deal at the time, I told her that it was kind of a “closed” event and so participating wasn’t really likely, but that she was welcome to come and help me out. I went to pick up the magazines and see the Rare H.A.R.E. and we had a great long discussion about the studio, her thoughts on upcycling property rights and patents and her dreams for the future. It was such a rich and great conversation and connection. I was reminded of the importance of finding strength and solidarity by meeting other practitioners and hearing their stories. Erin also basically saved my butt with the Redken folks. Because of a last minute change in the scheduling, we weren’t able to set up the space beforehand. During my brief presentation Erin and the hotel staff managed to get all of the magazines and materials out on the tables and ready for the participants. This was just another reminder of the principle: we have what we need. I never imagined that sending off one random e-mail inquiry would lead to the formation of a key relationship for the success of the event. But I am truly grateful to Erin for stepping up, supporting me in a somewhat unfamiliar and intimidating environment. I hope that we will stay in touch and that someday I might repay the favor.
Although this experience may not have had a lasting impact on the lives of 90 hairstylists from the U.K. and perhaps they did not start suddenly upcycling their rubbish, the experience was a successful one. It helped build my confidence and deepen my belief that human beings are creative and truly want to figure out a better way of living on this planet.
See more photos from the workshop in this gallery.