From Trash to Treasure: Using Donations to Make Incredible Art (Ep. 043)

Notorious hoarder Andrew McCormick starts the show by sharing some of his thoughts and theories on the amazing things his students can do with the piles of junk lying around his classroom. Tim tries to convince Andrew that it’s okay to get rid of some stuff, and Andrew agrees that he might be willing to do so . . . eventually. The guys talk about their favorite places to pick up free supplies (5:30), Andrew’s joy when he received comic books and blenders (11:15), and how to turn those donations into some amazing projects (14:00). This episode is filled to the brim with ideas and inspiration–give it a listen now! Full episode transcript below. 

 

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Transcript

Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education, and I’m your host, Andrew McCormick.

I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a single art teacher out there that is 100% okay with their budget. Even the most fortunate and flush teacher out there, probably someone who has a big old fat yearly budget, could probably come up with a list of a few new materials or some new items that they’d love to have in their classroom. We all need and want more stuff for our students than our budgets can provide. Then we’ll all heard or even lived the horror story or having about a dollar or less per student per year to spend on art supplies. The way around both these issues is really to have an open door policy for accepting donations from parents and other community members.

We as art teachers are notorious for being kind of weird and zany and we can really make magic and gold out of anything, out of junk. We’ll write those weird, zany emails asking for any number of cryptic stuff that our parents might just have lying around. “Hey, anybody out there got a bunch of pool noodles or PVCs they’re not using?” I wrote that one not too long ago. “Anybody got some Pringle cans, like 40 of them?” Then there’s always that one day out of the blue when you just get this weird, big pile of junk dropped off by some really well-intentioned parent.

Now maybe you really do have a use for all those foot-long strips of leftover purple vinyl. Maybe that stuff is just going to be pure garbage and it’s really a bigger pain in the butt to have to deal with that stuff. Do you even have room for all the donated materials that people are trying to give you? Do you really want all that old junky house paint? Do you say no or do you run the risk of looking ungrateful if you do that? Seriously, with donated materials you can strike it rich or simply strike out, so to help me figure out how to sort through some of the dilemma of free donations is Art Ed Radio’s second favorite podcast host, Tim Bogatz.

Sometimes Tim and I joke that I’m a bit of a hoarder, but you know it’s just a joke, and it really is important for teachers to think about their stance on donations. How do you get them? How do you store them? How do you ask for them? One of the things I love about getting weird and unusual donations is it forces students and teachers to look at things differently and to think about them differently. When you get a big ol’ pile of weird stuff, you and your students have to think creatively about what you can do with that. How can that be turned into art?

This is a great skill for students to develop that they really don’t get to try out and flex if the teacher’s always designing all the projects for them at the beginning of the term. All people benefit from being responsive and adaptive. What better way to demonstrate this to our students than taking a big ol’ pile of rubbish and turning it into artistic gold. As we get into how unexpected materials can drive new projects and ideas it makes me wonder about how we as art teachers plan our curriculum. Are we leaving enough space or new projects to come to life as we respond to new materials and ideas? Are we allowing for student choice as we develop our curriculum?

One of the great ways to think about allowing for space and flexibility is by checking out AOE’s class Designing Your Art Curriculum. The curriculum class is a really great hands-on class that like all AOE classes lets you learning alongside other great inquisitive art teachers. One of the things I’ve loved about this class is it allows you to design tools to implement a curriculum that best fits your teaching styles and the needs of your students, so head on over to TheArtofEd.com and check out this course and all the other great classes under the courses tab.

All right, so let’s bring on Tim to see if he can help me make sense of my big, open door policy and random piles of weirdness as I accept all these free will donations.

All right, Tim. Thanks for coming on, man.

Tim: Hey, thanks for having me. I am excited to talk to you.

Andrew: Yeah, you know, I think it’s one of those things that’s really important to think about how we use those donations, and I thought you’d be a good one to bring on because I know sometimes we joke that I’m Mr. Messy and you’re Mr. Clean, so I kind of want to hear your take on accepting junk from people, especially for an art room that’s really, really underfunded. That stuff can be super, super important. Where are some of your go-to favorite avenues for getting some of those donations?

Tim: Oh man, I have a lot of them and I think honestly part of that just comes from teaching for a while and just learning to accept all the crap that people are trying to dump off on you, like, “Oh, it’s the art room. They can use it.” You kind of have to learn what you want, but over the course of getting that experience I definitely found a few go-to things that I really like. I love cardboard in all forms because it works so well for sculpture and so well for painting, and sometimes even for drawing. You can do all sorts of stuff with it. It’s so versatile, so I love cardboard. You can get a lot of it donated, but if you’re ever running short you can always go to grocery stores or your box stores, Walmart, Target, whatever you have around, and ask them for donations, too, and they almost always have just a ton of cardboard. I’d always just take my wife’s SUV and drive to Target. They got to know me because I’m just always going to stop in and take all their cardboard from them. That’s always helpful.

I love hardware stores. A lot of times they’ll have all kinds of old stuff that they will donate to you for sculpture, and especially paint stores, like they have mis-tints or just other paint that may be getting old, house paint, whatever it may be that they’ll be happy to give to you or sell to you at a really, really cheap discount. Those are always some really, really good places to go and you can get a lot out of that. Anytime I can find cardboard or house paint, those are kind of my two go to things, so whatever stores I can get to for those are definitely my favorites.

Andrew: What I do is I put out an all-call all the time to parents, on a website, on news blasts, emails to parents, people in the school, and it helps out. You know, “Okay I need a bunch of bags because we’re doing ceramics. I need a bunch of cardboard, you know, I need a bunch of this.” Sometimes it’s like, “Hey, here’s a bunch of horrible, horrible crap, and by the way it’s rancid and it’s toxic,” so how do you avoid filling up your room with all that junk? How do you really make sure you’re getting what you want?

Tim: I feel like it’s kind of your job as the teacher to sort through it. No matter what level your at, whether you’re teaching elementary, high school, whatever, you’re going to get crap that you do not want and do not need, but I never want to say no to that. I think we’ve talked about this before. I just always fear if you’re going to get donations, you really don’t want to say no to anything because then those donations might dry up. You might stop getting things if you keep rejecting everything people try and give you. I always say yes to everything and then just kind of sort through it.

Usually I have three piles, like I have the pile of “Yes, we can use this.” I have the pile of “Maybe someday” and you just got to make sure that doesn’t get too big, and we can talk about that a little bit later. Then you have the pile of “Oh, God, we’re never going to use this.” I try and get rid of that stuff as soon as I possibly can, so I’ll accept it, be like, “Thank you so much. I appreciate the donation.” I’ll write them a thank you note later and all that good stuff, and then as soon as they’re gone I just take it back out to the dumpster and get rid of it. You really need to do that. If you know that you’re not going to use stuff, you know, it needs to get out of there as soon as possible, otherwise you’re going to end up with just this clutter, this mess, and just a lot of stuff that you won’t ever need and won’t ever use.

Andrew: Mm-hmm. Yeah, totally. I do kind of a similar thing. I don’t know, there’s been a couple times where I’ve just had to tell certain people, like “Okay, on the fourth try of you trying to give me something, I really appreciate it, but like, no I don’t want that. I cannot use it,” and I haven’t really had the instance where then it stops coming around. People still ask me if I want stuff and will take stuff. I know I have a reputation kind of everywhere I go with sending out kooky weird emails, like, “Hey, if you got any old trophies or taxidermic animals or broken musical instruments …” and they’re like, “What the crap are you doing in there?”

Then people when they’re cleaning out their house or downsizing, they’re like, “Man, I bet the art teacher could use this,” so I’ve gotten just some like straight up weird stuff. Maybe we can talk about that later. There’s the mainstay, there’s like everyone gives you yogurt containers and plastic bags and the cardboard, you know, stuff like that, but do you ever get something that’s kind of like, “Woo! Banner day! I got a THIS donated!” You got some stories about getting some really cool crazy stuff that got you all excited?

Tim: I don’t know if I’ve ever gotten anything that’s just really, really thrilling, but I kind of like the problem solving aspect of things where people give you stuff. Like you said, the broken musical instruments and the old trophies, and you have to figure out or you have to work with your kids to figure out exactly how you can use those, like if they’re in the “Maybe Someday” pile, I love to let kids look though there and say “Oh hey, we could to this. We could put this together to make this, and just let kids kind of attack that and really develop some of their creative thinking, some of their problem solving skills to kind of put things together in a new way. I’m always excited, like I said, when I get that cardboard, when I get house paint, things like that really kind of help my budget, but I also like the challenge of getting some new things and figuring out exactly what to do with them. I think if you look at it that way, if you look at it as kind of a challenge, then you can get excited about the possibilities of things that maybe you wouldn’t know what to do with otherwise.

Andrew: I had a day, couple weeks ago, maybe three or four weeks ago where late one night, it was on a Thursday, I had been in contact … This is a good source for people out there who are into collage and two dimensional stuff. Anyway, I had contacted a comic book shop and I had said, “You know, I know that sometimes you guys can return comic books that don’t sell or get beat up and they get dinged and you can return them back to the vendor and get credit back.” Well, they can have boxes and boxes and boxes of comic books and the vendor doesn’t want to pay for the shipping to send that stuff back, so what a lot of comic stores will do is they’ll rip off the cover, mail the cover back to the vendor as proof of “I could not sell this comic book,” and then the rest of that comic book they have to throw away, so about three weeks ago I scored about 500 lbs worth of comic books, just boxes and boxes and boxes of comic books.

It was really cool but then I actually was able to return the favor and email some of the teachers in the district, like, “Hey, I have like 20 boxes of comic books, like just hundreds and hundreds of comic books. Does anyone want them?” I was able to get rid of a few of them, but then the very next day I emailed the building’s family consumer science teacher and said, “You know, do you have an old food chopper or something? I’ve got all this old glaze I need to reconstitute.” I’m not kidding man, she came through with five really nice blenders, just like, “Here you go.” They had kind of gotten some new ones and these were all the old ones, and I was like, “This is amazing.” I think I kept three and I gave two down to some of the other high schools and elementary schools, kind of the same thing. It is always nice when you feel like you kind of win the lottery with free stuff.

Tim: Yeah, for sure, for sure.

Andrew: In the years of teaching we always get these weird donations. Has there been a project that’s come out that you’re just like, “Man, that project never could have happened if it wouldn’t have been for these weird projects”? Just a really memorable project that you’ve done with donated stuff?

Tim: Yeah. I have one that was actually really cool. This was a long time ago, probably my second or third year of teaching high school that I had hit up our local newspaper for any old paper, newsprint, whatever that they may have and they came through with just this huge roll of paper, like this 1,000 ft roll of newsprint, which I thought was really amazing. I was starting to just cut it up into smaller pieces, and one of my kids was like, “We should do a giant drawing with that,” and so we did.

I had this huge room when I was teaching, I mean it’s like 100 feet long, which is amazing in its own, but we were able to just layout this 50 ft piece of paper, and my kids would work collaboratively on it when they had some down time. They’d come in after school and just kind of doodle and sketch on it and other kids would come in and color it and it just turned into this 50 ft long cartoon drawing that just filled with all sorts of random crap, but you know, none of the drawings were great but it just looks so cool and I love the collaborative aspect of it and we developed something really, really nice out of there, which we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise if I hadn’t got that donation. I don’t know, what about you? Have you come up with anything really amazing with your half a ton of comic books or anything else like that?

Andrew: Well, the half a ton of comic books, I just kind of like leaving around for like I said, collage. I do a lot of drawings based on collage where the kids will build a collage and then we scale it up and we draw it and stuff. Kind of gets the out of the “I must draw photo realistically” vein. I think one of my favorite projects, and I haven’t done it this year yet, because I’m trying to figure out how to rebuild my stash of stuff is, I did a whole unit, a couple projects on steampunk, so something that looks futuristic-y, science fiction-y, but yet looks old and vintage. I would just have bins and bins, like the good old totes from Walmart filled with old computers and typewriters and VCRs and just junk that people would donate. Like, “Oh, I heard you wanted old crap,” you know, old electronic junk. The really fun part of that was the actual taking things apart. When we would start these units and you know, maybe it was a mask, or maybe is was kind of whatever they wanted to do, maybe we would do kind of a zombie head and there would be steampunk-y gears and wires and stuff in it.

The biggest kick the kids got out of it was actually taking all that stuff apart. I don’t know, maybe it’s like kind of reverse engineering, but it’s like, “Oh, this is how a VCR works,” or “This is how an old radio works,” and they’re taking it apart and they’re smashing it and they’re using tools and it’s like the most fun that they would have throughout the whole thing. I think it’s very physical.

Then we would just collect these things and what I really liked about it, and maybe you can kind of talk about this, is like I felt like in that project, kids were doing something that they weren’t doing in other art projects, which was they were looking at something that already had a purpose and they were re-imagining it. “Oh, that gear could be the eye, or that could be the this. These wires can be the hair.” I felt like my kids were really sort of developing their sense of imagination.

Tim: Yes.

Andrew: I guess I’m kind of wondering for you, like is that a similar skill that you saw your students develop when you worked with donated, kind of trash items?

Tim: Yeah, and I think that’s kind of the biggest thing that they get out of it is like I mentioned back at the beginning of the conversation, just the problem solving skills and the creativity that comes along with that because so much of creativity is making new connections between things that already exist and like you said, when you’re forced to look at these things in a new way and you’re forced to repurpose them, it really does develop that creative thinking.

What I love about it is a lot of these things are just outside of my normal curriculum, like these are things that I would never plan to do, that I wouldn’t expect my kids to do, but yet because of these donations, because of these materials that come in, we have all of these new opportunities and I think it’s really important to kind of embrace that because it does such a great job of developing creativity, problem solving, all those types of thinking skills that we always want our kids to do, and so if we really do embrace that and kind of build our projects around those donated materials, that’s one of the best things we can do to develop those skills that every teacher thinks are so vital.

Andrew: Okay, so I think we’re convincing people to open up the doors and let the trash flow in and accept some weird stuff. It’s great for your students and it gets them thinking differently and deeply. Let’s spin this to the opposite end of this horror spectrum and say, “Okay, you’ve been teaching and you have a pile of crap that you haven’t touched for 15 years and you’re turning into a hoarder.

Tim: So, like your classroom.

Andrew: No, mine’s not that bad. I’ve been downsizing some stuff and you know my teaching history is I have never stayed anywhere longer than four or five years so I can never build up that big of an arsenal of stuff. I just leave it for the next person after me.

Tim: I’m sure they love it.

Andrew: Oh, yeah. I left a giant box filled with about 60 pairs of women’s flip flops.

Tim: What?

Andrew: They’re all like size 10 because they were like buy four pairs of flip flops for 25 cents. I was like, “Ah, I can do something with this!” I just bought a ton of …

Tim: I have $10!

Andrew: Yeah, it was a good deal.

Tim: I can get so many flip flops.

Andrew: I left that for the next guy behind me and I’m sure he’s just scratching his head like, “What the heck?”. How do you know when to pull the trigger and get rid of something?

Tim: Oh, man. That’s a good question. I think when you look around and notice that you have 60 pairs of flip flops it’s time to start getting rid of things. Like I said, I think there are some things that you can get rid of immediately, but other things when you have them in the maybe pile, I think if they’ve sat there for couple years and you’ve had a couple groups of students come through and nobody has a real good idea of what they want to do with it and no lessons are coming to you, I would say just go ahead and get rid of it. If it’s been sitting there long enough that you think to yourself, “Oh, nobody’s used that in a while,” then it’s probably time to get rid of that. Maybe give it one last hurrah. Say, “Hey guys, I have all this stuff here. Think about it for a sculpture; think about it for drawing.” Whatever the case may be, and give them one last chance to go at it and maybe use what they can, what they want, and whatever doesn’t get used it’s probably time to get rid of.

If you do that every couple of years, I think you can keep from collecting or hoarding too much stuff that’s never going to be used.

Andrew: Yeah, but you know what’s going to happen. The day you throw that away, the next day you’re going to see this awesome project on Pinterest, where it’s like, “Ah! I need those 60 pair of flip flops. I finally know the perfect thing.” That’s my worry is the day I throw something away I’m going to come up with a really good idea the following day.

Tim: Andrew, I think that is step one in identifying a hoarder, like that attitude right there is like, “Can’t get rid of this I could use it someday.” Just that fear of missing out on the great opportunity. You just need to accept it. You need to embrace the fact that you get rid of this and maybe you missed an opportunity, but it’s better than your room filling with crap. I would say you just need to accept that you might miss out on something and be willing to kick some stuff to the curb.

Andrew: In the last couple years I’ve done a better job of kind of like, “C’est la vie,” like it comes, it goes. I’ll let go of some junk and some new junk will come in and fill its place, so man, I want to thank you. I feel like in the year or so that we’ve been doing this podcast, I think you’ve really helped me cleanse and purge a little bit of my room, so I appreciate that.

Tim: I hope so. I hope so.

Andrew: All right man, thanks for coming on, I appreciate it.

Tim: Yeah, good talking to you.

Andrew: So, I mentioned at the top, you know, sometimes Tim and I like to joke and I’m a little bit of a hoarder, but I’m not really that bad. As I’ve been focusing more and more on building routines for my students and building up my organizational repertoire, I have fewer and fewer big old weird piles laying around. I’ll never be like Tim, but I mean come on. Tim’s a little bit of a neat freak.

What I can say in parting is stay open, stay creative with what materials you ask for and what materials you accept, but do have a shelf life for your stuff. Like Tim said, if it’s been years, maybe give it one more shot and then perhaps share the holiday spirit and just re-gift it to some other art teacher in the district. Just make sure to use your campus mail if possible. There’s nothing like shipping a big box of flip flops to another school in the district, right?

Art Ed Radio is developed, produced, and supported by The Art of Education with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. For all you AOE fans out there, make sure you head on over to TheArtofEd.com and hurry up and register for the upcoming Art Ed Now Conference. Join thousands of your favorite Art Ed peeps from around the world and you will have access to some of the greatest presentations by some of the biggest names in Art Education. I’m really excited for Jessica Balsley’s talk on Life Hacks for Visual People. I think I can use all the hacks I could get, so head on over and sign up for the Art Ed Now Conference and while you’re there you can dig through some of the older podcasts that Tim and I have put together. As always, new episodes of Art Ed Radio are released every Tuesday and additional content can be found under the podcast tab on TheArtofEd.com. Thanks for listening.

11 months ago
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  • BossySnowAngel

    One thing I would like to add is that no matter how odd the donation, ALWAYS write a thank you note. Sure, it’s archaic and slow, but people are far more likely to remember you down the line with a personal gesture of thanks. Right now we have a framing store that gives us all their leftover mat boards. Some of it is glitzy and can be easily cut down for sculpture, but some of it is nice board that has a surface that can be used for drawing with pastels, Prismas or others media. My best score was when I went to an estate sale of a woman who was an artist. It was late on the last day and there were three full packs of full sheets of Arches watercolor paper—the good stuff. I knew what it was and asked on the price, which was over the top. But in talking to the people, they just wanted to get rid of it and were probably just going to toss it in a landfill. So they donated it. 300 full sized sheets of watercolor paper I couldn’t afford until I was out of college. Sometimes you just have to ask.

    • Andrew McCormick

      Nice score! I had a similar moment just a few weeks ago. Scored a bunch of nice brushes, paint, and some funky still-life objects for free at an estate sale.