Old plastic bottles are made into new shoes. Kraft paper tubes are transformed into pencil holders. Discarded, worn-out clothing becomes a powerful statement about family dynamics. These are the magical creations of artist Carla Tennenbaum '97.
Whether she's working with old computer and lighting cables or worn-out CDs, Carla has a keen ability to fabricate something delightful and unexpected out of discarded or ignored materials. "[My goal is] to transform our society and to create new, beautiful, sustainable, and healthy ways to thrive on this planet," she says.
Carla, who represented Brazil as a UWC-USA student and lives there now, is a well-respected artist who emphasizes "bringing undervalued materials to the spotlight, through a fresh approach to their qualities and potentials." She is particularly recognized for her work with ethyl vinyl acetate (EVA), a material that is known to most of us as the stuff flip-flops are made of. EVA is also not recyclable, and mounds of scraps end up in Brazilian landfills. By "upcycling" EVA, Carla says she is "developing productive chains of material transformation."
Out of the Closet, one of her recent pieces, features a river-like web of used clothing that explodes out of a closet and wends its way through the installation space, eventually transforming into spindles of colored fabric that are displayed like fireworks on the outside of the building. Carla explains that the clothing is a symbol of the family and its dynamics—and perhaps even its secrets. As it moves outside, the clothing dissolves into threads that create new connections and narrative through a transformative process.
Her talent and creativity have been recognized in countless publications, and she's been named one of the top 100 Brazilian Handicraft Artisans by SEBRAE, the Brazilian Service of Support for Micro and Small Enterprises. But accolades don't inspire her work. Carla says art should stimulate people and help improve lives. Toward that goal, Carla leads workshops that involve local people in what she calls "co-creation and collaborative design."
A paper "upcycling" workshop she led for the Urban Youth Project gave teenagers the chance to create collages and sculptures, small puppets, and origami boxes. In addition to introducing new skills, Carla says she is seeking ways to help artisans make something that can provide a livelihood.
It might sound like an artist's version of entrepreneurship, but that term is not one Carla is completely comfortable with. "For sure, entrepreneurship is an important quality of the human spirit—that drive and ability to achieve, to get things done, to take risks—for good or for bad," she says. "But I think this overemphasis on entrepreneurship as the force to solve the world's problems masks the fact that it is a core part of the same value system that created the problems in the first place—a system that values action instead of reflection, individual instead of collective, scale instead of detail, straight instead of curved, mind instead of soul."
For Carla, making work that is beautiful and significant is her driving force. "It is important to look at creativity not only as the generation of cultural products but also at how we can be creative in the ways we live our lives, in the things we desire, in our relationship to each other, and to the world around us," she says. "I think we would really benefit most from thinking not bigger or faster but deeper."
—by Tarra Hassin '91