Recycling: A Photo Essay

My mother, Mary Lewis Slavitt, Smith College class of 1936, was an immigrant and grew up in Western Massachusetts in the 1920s and 1930s. As a child in Lithuania, she and her family wasted nothing. She was a passionate and creative recycler, and that’s how I grew up. I couldn’t imagine it any other way besides hand-made and often repurposed. In the many years since I graduated from Smith, I’ve worked and lived around the world, beginning in 1973 in Chile where my first house gifts were a couple of empty milk and wine bottles without which I would not have been able to buy any milk or wine! After returning to the US to study art therapy a few years later, I moved with my family to France, Germany, and Taiwan with breaks in New York in between. Overseas and in Boston, I taught young children, focusing the curricula I created primarily around local culture and on the environment and recycling. I wanted the students, both local children and the expatriates who’d only live there for a year or two, to notice and learn the importance of caring for the environment. We recycled in the classroom and art projects often used repurposed materials. The children played joyfully with the unexpected: telephone wires creating hanging sculpture, packing cartons becoming a dragon costume for Chinese New Year, bottle caps and candy wrappers turning into a self-portrait collage.

After many years overseas, I returned to the US and continue to work in the education of teachers and young students, most particularly in art and reuse. I spent several years as a teaching artist at Materials for the Arts in NYC, and now give workshops in western MA and organize reuse art events as Reuse Art Coordinator of the Northampton DPWs Reuse Committee. My dream come true, full circle: a mini art and reuse depot as part of Northampton’s ReCenter “swap shop and more,” opening on April 25 at the Glendale Road Transfer Station. My work there will be inspired by what I have seen and learned about reuse, repurposing, and zero waste as a resident of Chile, France, Germany and Taiwan.

As a photographer and among many projects, I’ve recorded images of recycling efforts around the world. I appreciate the passion, color, and humor I’ve seen that encourages recycling in these different communities. Here are a few examples.

SLAVITT. Deborah Jane Slavitt, August 2014 during art residency, Cape CodA few years after graduation, Deborah Jane Slavitt ’69 set out on what would be a lifelong exploration of the world, teaching in early education programs at international schools, writing, raising a family, all fueled by a lifelong curiosity about people and their lives and a commitment to reuse and zero waste, planted by her mother Mary Lewis Slavitt, 1936. Deborah Jane’s Smith studies in child development, education, and photography supported her in these pursuits, and she went on to designing environmental elements in her curricula and to record images of recycling around the world through her photography.

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