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Downright trashy

Gabriel Brown wallows in filth

GABRIEL BROWN: Litter Mandala. Courtesy photo

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It's not every day you get invited to go dumpster diving. While I didn't end up digging in the trash, meeting artist Gabriel Brown gave me a new perspective on what we throw away and how we reuse it.

The experience also taught me you can fit all kinds of old cardboard through a printer if you know how.

Brown is more than just your average artist - he is a garbologist. "Garbologist" is a term often credited to William Rathje, an archaeologist and professor at the University of Arizona known for analyzing pieces of garbage as modern artifacts. Brown took this idea and ran with it as a young artist - exploring the discarded items in his native Spokane and now in Tacoma.

"I create satirical street performances, sculptural garbage installations and journalistic photography; doing lots of drawings along the way," he says. "My work is focused on encouraging a rethinking of waste, and the role of consumerism in our lives."

Brown has always been an artist, but he has not always dug in the trash. After a creative slump in his early 20s, he sought out a new way to create.

"I explored the underbelly of my hometown, Spokane - documenting spaces, dumpster diving for art supplies, joining groups, volunteering and getting involved," he says. "My artwork started blending with entertainment, activism, community-building and even gardening. This work has been tremendously fulfilling, has inspired many and hopefully is making some kind of impact."

Most recently, Brown installed Eukarya at the Urban Arts Festival - a manmade fungus created from scrap cardboard integrated into structures throughout the event. He has also appeared in the Woolworth building in downtown Tacoma doing a performance as what he calls Suburbia Man - practicing his golf swing in what's designed as an ironic look at what makes yuppies so yupperific.

Brown is perhaps best known for a cool series of appearances in his hometown of Spokane called "Beggar Inc." For several weeks, Brown dressed in a second-hand business suit and stood on a street corner with a scrap-cardboard sign. But these were no ordinary peddler signs. Instead, they had messages such as "Can't afford gas for my Hummer," "Need Starbucks," and "Will refinance loans for food." Brown says his intent was to be a living political cartoon and examine homelessness, consumerism and commuter culture.

Brown seeks to inspire with his work, whether it is a performance or a piece of artwork or a full exhibition. He seems pretty flexible about whether "inspiration" means people love the work or scream profanities at him. "Beggar Inc." inspired much screaming as well as plenty of confusion - not everyone gets Brown's work, but once you do, you realize there's genius behind it.

Above all, everything he does involves used items in some way or another. "Once you begin using recycled materials in your work, it is impossible to go back. You just can't justify it to yourself," he says.

He works with just about every kind of trash you can imagine and actively collects tiny pieces of litter, electronics, political signs and non-corrugated cardboard.

"Working with trash gives you that feeling of being in the trenches, doing the dirty work that no one wants to do but must be done," he says. "We must honor the work of all those who deal with our waste; this includes city workers, those infamous downtown sorters, freegans, e-waste disassemblers, all the world's poor gleaning the landfills and, perhaps most importantly, the fungus, bacteria and protozoa that gladly take on waste and transform it into soil. This is my inspiration: all those who exist in the other half of life that has been deemed yucky."

Currently, Brown doesn't have any work in Tacoma, but Eukarya is currently at Carkeek Park in Seattle. He is also participating in The Grow Show, a multi-city project of shopping carts transformed into gardens. The carts are traveling around the area and will eventually be donated to food banks. He is still new to this area, so keep an eye out for his work in Tacoma.

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