Creating AWE:  Arts from Waste Experience

Creating AWE: Arts from Waste Experience

Creating AWE:  Arts from Waste Experience

A town in New Jersey promotes AWE – the Arts from Waste Experience – a cluster of hands-on Arts programs designed to teach Sustainability awareness and principles to the community.

For many people, the concept of Sustainable Living as a means of protecting our environment is simple to grasp, yet challenging to put into daily practice.

Sustainability advocates struggle to find the most effective ways to apply abstract theory to everyday lifestyle choice and decisions.

In a densely populated corner of northeast New Jersey, local government officials have devised a strategy they call AWE – the Arts from Waste Experience – a cluster of hands-on Arts programs designed to teach Sustainability awareness and principles to a diverse cross-section of the community.

Woodbridge Township has long been a poster child for New Jersey’s fabled urban congestion. Surprisingly, for a community that’s been a commercial and industrial crossroads since Colonial days, there is actually a fair amount of Nature still remaining.

But with a population density of 4,225 humans per square mile, the state’s largest shopping mall and a welter of superhighways, office parks and retail complexes engulfing the available terra firma, you have to look pretty hard to find it.

In 2010 Mayor John E. McCormac used funding from a U.S. Department of Energy stimulus grant to create the Township’s first Sustainable Community Plan setting forth strategies and actions the Township would undertake to achieve greater Sustainability.

Each of the Plan’s six prime action areas – Transportation and Circulation; Energy Conservation and Green Buildings; Management, Trees and Open Space; Green Purchasing, Recycling and Materials Management; Business Outreach; Resident Outreach – are reinforced by Arts activities geared to disseminate Sustainable Living knowledge in Woodbridge year-round.

“We have close to 100,000 residents encompassing a diversity of age, occupation, ethnicity and educational levels,” says Mayor McCormac. “The most efficient vehicle we’ve found to deliver the Sustainability message is the Arts. The Arts get people’s attention, get them involved, help them see how these ideas can operate in their daily lives with positive benefit.”

The anchor element in the Township’s Sustainability campaign is AWE – Arts from Waste Experience – a community Arts education program that features a fulltime Artist-in-Residence and several volunteer instructors at the Greenable Woodbridge Museum of the Future who offer free workshops on recycled Art techniques for all ages … but especially focusing on young people who will hopefully take the lead as the Sustainability proponents of tomorrow.

Using cleaned recycled materials from the Township’s Department of Public Works, AWE generates a world of Art from Waste:

• Musical Instruments from Recycled Objects (xylophones from glass, metal, wood, stone, found objects)…

• Denim Art (area rug, coasters, memory box, oven mitt) …

• Old Book Art (hidden safe, wallets, purses, envelopes, wall art) …

• Mosaic Tile Murals on public walls, sidewalks, streets…

And an infinite array of recycled Artwork limited only by the imagination of the Artist: styrofoam sculpture, basket weaving, clay, batik, natural building, patchwork quilts, origami, wire sculpture, puppet making, recycled paper beads, kites from recycled materials, office decor, papier-mâché masks and more.

Immediate outcomes of AWE go beyond teaching Art production skills and principles of recycling and sustainability to thousands of students and community members.

The works created by AWE Artists are introduced in public areas throughout the Township – from shops to parks to public transit locales – presenting community residents and visitors with prominent “visual cues” that encourage them to think about environmental issues at a face-to-face level.

It’s Sustainability advertising minus guilt or preaching. Omnipresent yet memorable social messaging that’s fun to create and experience and supports the Township’s ongoing “Greenable Woodbridge” publicity effort informing residents and businesses about Sustainable Living opportunities in the community.

The fulcrum is the strong partnership between the Mayor’s Office and the Township Green Team, an advisory group of some three dozen Township residents representing a wide span of business and community groups.

Caroline Ehrlich, Green Team chair and Director of the Township’s Office of Sustainability, recalls that the Arts were incorporated into the sustainability planning from the very beginning.

“If you want to educate someone about the benefits of using a rain barrel, you can sit them down and lecture them and make a basic intellectual impact,” says Ehrlich, “But if you have them paint the barrel with a fanciful design, maybe even collaboratively with others, they’re embracing the subject on a much more thoughtful and personal level.”

AWE has inspired a plethora of other Arts and Sustainability initiatives in Woodbridge: recycled Eco-Drum circle sessions, a Girl Scouts recycled fashion show, sustainable-themed songwriting workshops and poetry readings, contests for designing bike signs, street designs and bike racks reflecting Sustainable Living themes, painting street crosswalks highlighting sustainable themes, planting trees at schools and parks where students make and place clay and twig sculptures.

Members of the Township’s local visual Arts co-op, the Woodbridge Artisan Guild, also participate in AWE. Future projects include using public Art installations to bring attention to the Township’s wetlands restoration areas and brownfield redevelopment sites and to promote alternative transport by identifying greenways, bikeways, walkways, mass transit and alternative fuel vehicle stations.

“Our vision of success for these projects is to have thousands of our residents from every walk of life get involved and start thinking of the environment as something they care about very deeply,” says Mayor McCormac. “It’s going to make a big difference in what Woodbridge Township is like in the years to come.”


The artistic merit of Public Art is intrinsic – it speaks to the aesthetic sensibilities of those who view it.

The Woodbridge Township AWE program goes one step further … it asks viewers (and creators) to consider Public Art:

– in the global context of our planet's environment,
– in the local context of community sustainability,
– and in the personal context
of each individual's interaction
with the "natural" world of everyday life.

If AWE can happen in Woodbridge, New Jersey … why not your town?

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Article Featured Image Caption:

"Sitting Man" by Lisa Bagwell in front of the Greenable Woodbridge Museum of the Future. Photo by Lawrence E. McCullough

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