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Upcycling: from crushed cans to folk art

Joan Fieldstone

August 16, 2016

By: Joan Fieldstone, Home Improv Advocate

In: Interior DesignGreen Living

Sometimes I envy my creative friends. While I'm the one who imposes order on chaos by tossing clutter, they embrace what others discard, imagining for it a whole new life. They can transform used, forgotten, and rejected things into objects of beauty.

My acquaintance Carol Skolnick, an artistic person of many talents, upcycles old cans. In the California seaside town where she lives, she's called "The Crushed Can Lady" -- but not for her habit of scouring parking lots for flattened, empty aluminum and steel cans. Her notoriety comes from how she takes what others call trash and turns it into wall and shelf art. Galleries have sold her crushed can creations. The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History displayed one of her pieces last year.

Crushed can art owl

Carol describes what she does as "folk art," calling the style "primitive." She attributes the idea of transforming crushed cans into art pieces to her junior high school art teacher. Carol liked the pieces she made for class as a young teen and displayed them in her home for years. Friends repeatedly told her how interesting those early works were, and she wondered why she had never done any more of them. About seven years ago, she began collecting crushed cans and painting them. She's made more than 50, but admits it can be a consuming process; some single pieces have taken her years to complete. Her "studio" is a small folding table in her one-bedroom apartment where, she admits, "I used to eat dinner." The pursuit of art oftentimes supersedes comfort and one's own home décor.

How to make crushed can art

Work table showing supplies for making crushed can art

She eventually worked out her current process for turning the flattened metal into the whimsical pieces that have earned her the Crushed Can Lady nickname. If you'd like to try making this kind of art for yourself, here's her advice:

  1. Be careful of sharp edges. This is not a project for young children.
  2. Cover the can with gesso. It's a white paste that serves two functions: it will make the paint adhere to the shiny can and will allow you to visualize what the can's shape suggests. Don't decide on a subject and look for a crushed can that fits the shape. It works best the other way around. Many of Carol's cans become fish or owls because their shape naturally lends itself to those subjects, but she's created interesting human characters, tableaux, and even a flower in a pot by arranging several cans together and seeing what they remind her of. Don't try crushing the cans with your car tires, either. They won't get flat enough.
  3. Use other found objects. Bottle caps, nails, broken bits of jewelry, seashells, and other small objects can add details. Use an adhesive like E6000 to glue metal bits and other finishing details.
  4. Paint with acrylics. The kind you find in toy stores works just fine. You don't need to invest in high-quality paint.
  5. Glaze the finished piece. Cover it with two coats of a gloss varnish that works with acrylics. She recommends Liquitex Gloss Medium and Varnish instead of spray varnishes that can be toxic.
  6. Reuse or repurpose frames. Shop thrift stores, garage sales and flea markets. Background plaques can be old cutting boards or other salvaged planks of wood. Inexpensive plate easels also work perfectly to display your finished art piece on the wall or on a shelf.

For examples to get you started, view her work at Carol's Crushed Can Art on Facebook.

3 Comments

  • Larry says: 16 August 2016 at 9:49 pm
    Carol's talent is uncanny, and crushingly amazing and fun to see! DO check out her site!
  • Kathy says: 17 August 2016 at 5:30 am
    I am a happy collector of Carol's crushed can art! Her charming creations delight everyone who enters my home.
  • Carol Skolnick says: 17 August 2016 at 5:34 pm
    Thank you, Joan, for the lovely write-up. Crushed can art makes a wonderful and unique gift and if you are not artistically inclined, I have many pieces available for purchase on the Facebook page linked above, and I take commissions too!
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