Close-up of a plastic bag made of pulp with the words, “Thank you” in five different languages.
Artist: Analía Saban, “DANKE MERCI THANK YOU GRACIAS ARIGATO Plastic Bag,” 2016. Pictured is a piece made out of pulp poured over a plastic bag mold with the words, “Thank you” in five different languages at the “Nature of Waste” exhibit at Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln. The art questions what it means to work hard and make something that looks like garbage into an art piece. Upon closer inspection, viewers can see the creases and folds on the mold, freezing the plastic bag in time. Photo by Ashley Chong/NNS

Modernity is often associated with cleanliness. 

Humans have been taught for centuries to feel proud of themselves when they create clean and clutter-free spaces and to perceive waste as something to be kept away from human habitation. 

Still, waste surrounds humans even when they don’t realize it.

Katie Anania, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor and art historian organized an exhibition at the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln, “The Nature of Waste: Material Pathways, Discarded Worlds.” 

The exhibition featured artworks that were made from discarded items and invited viewers to think of how waste drives human activity.

Humans are now more conscious of their waste production as they progress to the anthropocene age where their actions can significantly impact the Earth’s climate and ecosystems, Anania said. 

“I’m sure you’ve seen on social media, invitations to go low or no waste and live the kind of lifestyle that implies you as an individual, are the sole agent for stopping waste streams,” Anania said. “But it’s completely untrue. The vast majority of pollution that’s produced on the planet is by corporations.”

The latest waste characterization study of Nebraska in 2009 showed paper fibers were the largest waste category (41.15%), followed by plastics (19.13%) and food (16.64%). 

Currently, Nebraska doesn’t plan to conduct an updated waste characterization study across the entire state, according to Amanda Woita, a public information officer for the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy.

Anania offered a different approach to reducing waste. She said the first step is to repurpose items in a way that are central to our lives and likely to return in another form of use. For example, food scraps can be repurposed as compost material.

Anania’s exhibition at Sheldon is part of a bigger project to create a database of on-campus art works related to ecological collapses. She is currently writing a grant to make the database available for the University of Nebraska system to use for teaching. Her research community works with the ​​Center for Digital Research in the Humanities to present artworks that are easily searchable for anyone. 

Anania worked at museums before becoming a professor, and one of the components she trained others to do was object-based teaching.

“By looking at an art, it’s possible for whatever discipline you’re attached to, to generate questions about a topic,” Anania said. “We’re focusing on the things (art pieces) that are on campus so that professors can take students to see and build projects around it.”

Anania chose artworks that depict scenes in the Midwest and offer solutions for industrial and agriculture pollution. 

“It’s a wonderful chance for people in different sectors to reflect on, structurally, the effects of what they do,” Anania said. “But it’s also a beautiful and promising reflection of what Nebraska has to offer in terms of creativity, innovation, and these cultural collections that are lying at our fingertips.”

“The Nature of Waste: Material Pathways, Discarded Worlds” is available for viewing at the Sheldon Museum of Art until Dec. 23, 2021.


U2A3825 - Sheldon art exhibition shows waste drives human life
Artist: Raymond Saunders, untitled art. Pictured is a collage of sketches made of discarded materials glued to a used box lid at the “Nature of Waste” exhibit at Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln. This piece was an accidental model of ecologically conscious art-making. “Saunders didn’t consider himself socially conscious or an environmentalist,” said exhibition organizer Katie Anania. “He was interested in discarded objects and products purely for their aesthetic potential.” His work was inspired by historical modernist and surrealist artists challenging the aesthetic norms in the 20th century. Photo by Ashley Chong/NNS
U2A3827 - Sheldon art exhibition shows waste drives human life
Artist: Käthe Kollwitz, “Help Russia,” 1921. Pictured is a lithograph of two pairs of hands reaching out to a man with his eyes closed at the “Nature of Waste” exhibit at Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln. Kollwitz lived through World War I and her sons were military casualties. She spent most of her life toward socially conscious printmaking. This graphic was made into a public poster to help the Russian famine during the Russian revolution. “Some of her graphic work was so successful, she was denounced as a problematic artist by the Nazi,” said exhibit organizer Katie Anania. Anania added that the Nazi even used some of her poster imagery in their own propaganda. Photo by Ashley Chong/NNS
U2A3833 - Sheldon art exhibition shows waste drives human life
Artist: Bruce Conner, “July George: Portrait of George Herms,” 1962. Pictured is a shrine-like portrait made from a memento box stacked on pieces of wood at the “Nature of Waste” exhibit at Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln. Conner, a UNL alum, built a portrait of his friend, Geroge Herms, who was away in the U.S. while Conner was living temporarily in Mexico to avoid nuclear proliferation in the U.S. Conner was part of the Bay Area Funk Art movement that involved a lot of garbage collecting. The U.S. saw an increase in consumer culture in the 60s, but not in Mexico. Conner had to buy souvenir objects to build Herms’ portrait. “It’s an example of a person discovering that recycling consumer culture can only happen if you have the culture of over consumption in the first place,” said exhibit organizer Katie Anania. Photo by Ashley Chong/NNS
U2A3836 - Sheldon art exhibition shows waste drives human life
Artist: Analía Saban, “DANKE MERCI THANK YOU GRACIAS ARIGATO Plastic Bag,” 2016. Pictured is a piece made out of pulp poured over a plastic bag mold with the words, “Thank you” in five different languages at the “Nature of Waste” exhibit at Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln. The art questions what it means to work hard and make something that looks like garbage into an art piece. Upon closer inspection, viewers would be able to see the creases and folds on the mold, freezing the plastic bag in time. Photo by Ashley Chong/NNS
U2A3837 - Sheldon art exhibition shows waste drives human life
Artist: Willie Cole, “Wind Mask East,” 1990. Pictured is a mask made of discarded hair dryers at the “Nature of Waste” exhibit at Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln. Willie Cole, a Black artist, was inspired by African art-making tradition, including masks. “People are usually either afraid of it or find it funny,” said exhibit organizer Katie Anania. Cole found the hair dryers in the trash, and the stench of the hairdryers created a problem for Sheldon conservators. The mask begs the question of who belongs in art history and how people from different cultures are represented in museum spaces. “As soon as I found out this piece was to mimic an African mask, I took it for granted,” Anania said. “It mimics the early Modernist artists like Picasso who found African masks inspiring in this exotic and intellectually loose way.” Photo by Ashley Chong/NNS
U2A3844 - Sheldon art exhibition shows waste drives human life
Artist: Renée Stout, “The Wishing Bean,” 2013. Pictured is a recipe list for the wishing bean at the “Nature of Waste” exhibit at Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln. Stout’s work was inspired by the research of African religious practices like magic, alchemy and Vodou, which uses castoff objects to affect a real-life situation. The recipe calls for any type of bean and following the steps to fulfill one’s wishes. “As you’re walking across a bridge, you throw the beans over into the water, and your wish will come true,” said exhibit organizer Katie Anania. Photo by Ashley Chong/NNS
U2A3850 - Sheldon art exhibition shows waste drives human life
Artist: Donald Lipski, untitled art, 1985. Pictured is a see-through wire trash can covered with parachute material at the “Nature of Waste” exhibit at Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln. Exhibition organizer Katie Anania said the parachute fabric was ordered new and custom made for this art piece. Photo by Ashley Chong/NNS
IMG 5750 - Sheldon art exhibition shows waste drives human life
Artist: Donald Lipski, untitled art, 1985. Pictured is the inside of a see-through wire trash can covered with parachute material at the “Nature of Waste” exhibit at Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln. “It’s one of those objects that tells you what to do without saying a word,” said exhibition organizer Katie Anania. “It combines all the ways of wanting to interact with an object. We want to go up to a drum and play it; we want to look through something like a telescope.” The drum-like trash can has a reflective center, at its base whereby it invites a viewer to stare down into an endless space. Anania said the artwork is also poetically appropriate as it symbolizes seeing the whole pathway of a trash can. Photo by Ashley Chong/NNS
U2A3871 - Sheldon art exhibition shows waste drives human life
Artist: Colette Bangert, “Wind Stripped: Spring Weed,” 1976. Pictured is a computer drawn art depicting a spring weed dispersing its seeds at the “Nature of Waste” exhibit at Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln. Bangert was one of the first female artists to draw using a computer in the 70s. She and her husband worked in Kansas at computer labs, developing mechanisms to dictate algorithmic steps for the computer to draw these lines over and over. “It was a cool way of spending a computer’s time making a work of art,” said exhibition organizer Katie Anania. Photo by Ashley Chong/NNS
U2A3874 - Sheldon art exhibition shows waste drives human life
Artist: Colette Bangert, “Wind Stripped: Spring Weed,” 1976. Pictured is a close-up of a computer drawn art depicting spring weed at the “Nature of Waste” exhibit at Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln. Bangert experimented and instructed the computer to fill in each space with color. Upon closer inspection, viewers can see the repetition of the lines. “You can sort of see the set of instructions– you can read through and pick out what those directions might have looked like,” said exhibit organizer Katie Anania. Photo by Ashley Chong/NNS
U2A3875 - Sheldon art exhibition shows waste drives human life
Artist: Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, “Grasp Tight The Old Ways,” 2011. Pictured here is a skeletal man wearing a dunce cap on a collage illustration at the “Nature of Waste” exhibit at Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln. Smith, a native American artist, makes a case for looking to ancestors– the people that we’ve learned from the past to form a reparative future. The dotted lines on the skeleton man’s left hand symbolize the connection they have to ideas and practices that they’ve gotten from their ancestors. “This picture is about ancestral knowledge, but it’s also addressing problems of climate change and environmental decay,” said exhibit organizer Katie Anania. Drips of white paint indicate melting snow. One of the windows on the right of the image shows a coloring book-style illustration of an Indian American. “This is a set of a filmic depiction of all the memories you can have,” Anania said. Photo by Ashley Chong/NNS
U2A3881 - Sheldon art exhibition shows waste drives human life
Artist: Antonio Frasconi, “Field of Scrap,” 1963. Pictured here is a lithograph of a scrap field using purple and orange colors at the “Nature of Waste” exhibit at Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln. The piece paints a dystopian world of industrial production at first glance. A purple mess is shown above the horizon, which could be clouds or a cyclone. “But the closer you look into this print, there’s such a loving depiction of all the different kinds of scrap!” said exhibit organizer Katie Anania as she emphasized on the word “scrap.” With a background in auto mechanics, Frasconi’s scrap field consists of hubcaps that look like eyes and clusters of tubes that look like thickets of industrial waste. Photo by Ashley Chong/NNS
U2A3891 - Sheldon art exhibition shows waste drives human life
Artist: O. Louis Guglielmi, “Phoenix (Portrait in the Desert; Lenin),” 1935. Pictured here is a dystopian painting of a pile of rubble in a desert and a portrait of Lenin at the “Nature of Waste” exhibit at Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln. Guglielmi, an Egyptian immigrant who worked in the U.S. as an artist, was critical of capitalism. This painting is an indictment of American industrial agriculture. What was once a building, now in shambles, is a representation of what might happen in the future if we continue to use water-intensive forms of agriculture, said exhibit organizer Katie Anania. In front of the pile lies a portrait of Lenin leaning against a metal structure. “It’s a reference to the possibilities inherent in communism to create a more environmentally healthy agricultural future,” Anania said. The small corn plant in front of Lenin’s portrait gestures toward a renewal in the future as long as we rethink the ways we use capitalism to overproduce and misallocate resources to people, Anania said. Photo by Ashley Chong/NNS
U2A3901 - Sheldon art exhibition shows waste drives human life
Artist: Robert Zakanitch, “Sunset Stacks,” 1987. Pictured here is a painting of an industrial smoke stack blending into the sunset at the “Nature of Waste” exhibit at Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln. “This is aestheticizing the effects of factory production that are detrimental to people’s lives and health,” said exhibit organizer Katie Anania. Photo by Ashley Chong/NNS