RAIR Artists Reimagine What the Rest of Us Throw Away

When local sculptor and installation artist Shelley Spector started her time at RAIR (Recycled Artist in Residency) earlier this year, she knew she wanted to work with things like wood, paper, and leather, “but definitely not plastic. [And] I definitely don’t want to sew.”


And then, among the piles of trash covering the site, she found “six skids full of brand-new fabric bolts, followed by a sewing machine.” The sewing machine worked. “And then I started collecting plastic.”


You can bring your ideas to RAIR, but don’t expect the 3.5-acre construction and demolition waste recycling site that houses the residency to play by your rules. It has about 450 tons of material per day—if you can grab it. Applications for 2019 are open through October 31.




“We’re like a small non-profit housed within a pretty large, hefty for-profit,” RAIR director of special projects Lucia Thomé explains. The for-profit is Revolution Recovery, which operates recycling sites primarily for construction and demolition waste. RAIR’s studios are housed at Revolution Recovery’s riverfront site in Tacony.


According to Thomé, up to 80 percent of the stuff dumped at Revolution gets recycled, resold, or repurposed, and we’re not talking bottles and cans. This is various metals, rubble, drywall, lumber, cardboard, rigid plastic, or the contents of entire houses after a clean-out.


Why bring artists to a potentially dangerous site where giant vehicles are dumping, shoveling, and carting hundreds of tons of waste?


“Trash is way more complicated than you think it is,” Thomé says. “When your trash leaves, you don’t know what happens to it.” But when artists get their hands on it, that can change.


That’s where RAIR sits: in the space between art and industry, makers and our culture of waste, artists and dump-truck operators. RAIR’s flagship residency program attracts emerging and established artists alike, with two options. The Standard Residency is a studio-based program lasting four to six weeks between March and November for five artists selected annually. For a minimum of 20 hours per week, standard residents get on-site studio and project space, and access to the Tacony waste stream. A smaller-scale residency, the Biggie Shortie, is more project-based. It lasts for two to four weekends, with partial access to the RAIR shop’s tools and equipment, but offers no private studio.


Gabe Kenney. RAIR.
Gabe Kenney. RAIR.



RAIR launched in 2010, and has been offering formal residencies since 2014. There are only two full-time employees: Thomé (who’s been on board since 2013), and cofounder Billy Blaise Dufala, director of residencies. So it’s a small operation, but they don’t stint on safety.


Every residency begins with stringent safety training, Thomé says, staring with what they call “the get-up,” which must be worn by all residents in the yard in all weathers. That means boots, goggles, ventilators, hard hats, and safety vests. Tons of trash is coming and going all day, in a constantly moving battalion of 18-wheelers, dump trucks, front-loaders, and other heavy construction vehicles.


The artists are grateful guests in Revolution Recovery’s house, as Thomé puts it, learning to “choreograph ourselves around their operation.”


“No piece of trash is worth your safety,” she adds. “If it’s out of reach, it’s gone.”


“If I saw some gleaming piece of waste that was perfect for the work I was doing, I couldn’t just make a run for it,” Spector says. “There are safety procedures…not to mention that the piles of recyclables and landfill are probably about 20 feet high, so it’s like a football field with mountains of waste.”


So what kind of work materializes from RAIR?


“There’s a stereotype of trash art,” Thomé says, like welded bike wheels or sculptures made with bottles. But RAIR looks beyond that. One notable example is former resident J. Makary, a filmmaker who became captivated with the dust on the site and created a documentary-style film titled Doosan, Sea-Doo. It captures what Thomé calls “vignettes of people keeping the dust at bay.” The result is full of evocative images as ethereal as they are gritty and mundane.


J. Makary – Doosan, Sea-Doo


Spector took many side-trips in plastic, burnt wood, vintage clothes, and vinyl record sleeves, but she also stayed true to her initial proposal of building a mobile soap-making unit, which renders liquid soup from reclaimed cooking oil. Her new modular work-station, which was successfully tested at another residency immediately following RAIR, now lives in Spector’s Point Breeze studio, but it’s easy to fold up and take on the road. Using wood, plastic, and metal, she fashioned the cart with an electrical hook-up, crock pot and sink, counter space, and storage for bottles and utensils, with the compact efficiency of a boat’s cabin.


Spector soapcart.
Spector soapcart.

The vast majority of artists who come to RAIR with a plan end up changing it, Thomé notes. An independent jury selects residents, but she and Dufala like to “prime the canvas.” They don’t want artists who are merely looking for new studio space. They want artists “who will really use the site, use the materials,” and let the trash “propel them in a new body of work.” It’s impossible to say in advance what that will be, since the materials vary day to day.


The residency is open to artists around the world, and 2019 is a big year for RAIR. They just received a two-year grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts to fund each residency with a $600 stipend for the first time, as well as offering some travel and housing assistance for non-Philly artists.


Spector calls RAIR one of Philly’s gems. It’s not uncommon for contemporary artists to work with repurposed materials—it’s practically its own medium these days, she notes, with college courses in “found object sculpture.” But RAIR pushes participants to another level.


“I’m a little more deeply concerned about the materials themselves, and the idea that we’re using a lot of resources that can’t be replaced, and have nowhere to go once we’re done with them,” she says.


Working there is an extremely intimate and challenging way to get to know your city, by what it throws away. “Going there gave me a deeper, more profound understanding of what we’re getting rid of,” Spector finishes. There’s “work that needs to be done to let people know that when you put something in a recycling can and put it on your sidewalk, it doesn’t just disappear from the world.”


If you want to support RAIR, their annual Trash Bash fundraiser is coming up on November 14 at the Ice Box @ Crane Arts, with a silent auction, drinks, and hors d’oeuvres.