Melissa Merli's Art Beat: The art of upcycling

Melissa Merli's Art Beat: The art of upcycling

Most of us Americans feel secure in our daily lives. That is an illusion.

Laura Wennstrom's "Security Blanket," on view at the Indi Go Artist Co-op as part of the first Hatch festival, speaks to that. Made of security envelopes, it's fragile, a featherweight quilt that could rip or get shredded or soaked, all in an instant.

It's one of several thoughtful pieces in the Hatch show, featuring works made from materials that have been recycled, reused or repurposed. I like the term "upcycled" because the pieces in the show, as well as at the Hatch one-day art fair last week, are interesting, creative and often beautiful.

And they represent a nice way of keeping yet more stuff out of landfills.

You probably know by now that The I.D.E.A. Store in Champaign organized and hosted Hatch. For a first-time event, it was a success, with more than 170 people attending the exhibition opening and 450 visiting the art fair at the McKinley Fitness Center.

Gail Rost, one of the founders of the I.D.E.A. Store, a sort of thrift shop for makers that benefits the Champaign-Urbana Schools Foundation, said she's 98 percent sure the store will do Hatch again next year.

"We're going to do our evaluation meeting on Monday night," she said. "If that committee is willing to work on it again and we bring in additional people, the answer will be yes."

Like myself and others, Rost hopes it will become an annual event. She said the I.D.E.A. Store received nothing but positive feedback from everyone who participated — including the Hatch art fair vendors. And they are the harshest critics, she said.

Rost will suggest tweaking the event, though: She would like for the art exhibition to run for two weeks and to end with the art fair, to keep the Hatch momentum going. The Hatch art show at Indi Go remains open through March 17; viewing hours are 5 to 7 p.m. daily.

The Hatch festival also featured an artist-in-residence, Michelle Stitzlein of Baltimore, Ohio. I called her Monday, and she told me she thought the event was fabulous, well-organized and thoroughly marketed.

She has participated in other "green" events, such as Earth Day happenings and festivals with environmental themes. Those generally don't have a venue to show her work.

Stitzlein said she's never taken part in a festival like Hatch, one that focused on things made with recycled or reused materials.

She began reusing discarded materials in her art in 2000, after having gone to art school and working as an administrator for 12 years in an arts organization.

At the Hatch opening reception at Indi Go, she talked about her and her husband's artwork and showed slides of things they made — as well as a piece from their collection, made by people in developing countries from recycled materials.

She also showed a photograph of a bowerbird in Australia. She identifies with the male bowerbird, which collects found objects such as pieces of shiny glass and strews them in front of its nest to attract mates.

"Their habits are so intriguing," she said. "David Attenborough has a video online about bowerbirds ( It's a great little clip."

Like the bowerbird, Stitzlein retrieves materials from near her nest. She visits a nature preserve down the road from where she lives that she believes used to be a town dump. There she finds things in a ravine that she uses in her art.

"The park rangers are really happy to see me come because I'm cleaning the place up, little by little," she said.

People with old pianos also call Stitzlein, who ends up taking them apart and using pieces in her art — one of her moths, for which she is best known, has wings made partly of piano keys. (She said she usually finds a mouse nest inside the old pianos.)

Among other materials she works with are plastic bottle caps. She led a Hatch workshop at the I.D.E.A. Store on using plastic bottle caps in murals. She had a similar workshop the day before at South Side Elementary School in Champaign.

I dropped by the Saturday workshop and was wowed by all the caps, separated by color and in bins, and the works in progress.

"I think there were four or five art teachers in the class," Stitzlein said. "They hope to take the project back to their respective schools and kick off a project like South Side did."

For more on Hatch, check out my blog at

At Figure One

Another artist recently finished up a residency in C-U: Joshua Hagler, a 33-year-old painter who lives in Oakland, Calif. Some of his "frenetic semi-figurative" large-scale and smaller portraits are on view through March 30 at Figure One, the downtown Champaign "creative laboratory" of the University of Illinois School of Art + Design.

I stopped by Thursday to chat with Hagler and see his work. He told me his larger oil paintings there are based on historical paintings such as "Washington Crossing the Delaware" by Emanuel Leutze and "The Death Struggle" by Charles Deas.

In his paintings, Hagler uses the myths of the American West as a starting point to create his own cosmology. He also draws on his memories of growing up in Litchfield and suburban Phoenix.

"It takes my experiences eight to 10 years to catch up with me," he said.

In "The Unsurrendered," the title of his exhibition at Figure One, Hagler riffs on the cowboys and Indians motif occurring through the 19th and early 20th centuries, using images of 18th- and 19th-century aristocrats and Marvel and DC Comics superheroes. He also creates in his paintings parallels between the recent economic recession and the boom and bust of the late 19th century.

His smaller portraits in "The Unsurrendered" are comments on the American Indian portraits created by German and French immigrants, who created a genre of art that was "more and more nostalgic and less reliable in terms of anthropological resources," Hagler said.

A lot of racism was bound up in those paintings, which were made as American Indian lives were being destroyed by the encroachment of railroads, he said.

Hagler spent a week in-residency at the UI's School of Art + Design, working with undergraduate and graduate students from all disciplines. He is Figure One's third artist-in-residence but the first to get a show at Figure One, 116 N. Walnut St., C. Figure One is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesdays and 5 to 9 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

Art Theater update

For my blog on last week's Art Theater Co-op meeting for owners, visit For my blog on the new "Total Art" program that started Saturday at Indi Go, visit

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or Her blog is at

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