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Virginia fleck - the beauty of disposable items

Upcycled contemporary art


Treasure 2.7 

Can tabs and safety pins 

45" w x 54" l x 1.5" d


Since 2002, award winning artist Virginia Fleck, has been creating ecologically conscious artworks from post-consumer materials, unearthing the hidden beauty of disposable items that continually pass through our hands.

Fleck’s work has been commissioned for the permanent collections of the US Embassy in Rwanda, the Marino Golinelli collection in Bologna, Italy, Whole Foods World Head Quarters in Austin, TX, Facebook Austin, TX, NYU Langone Hospital in NYC, Dell Children's Hospital in Austin, TX.

Fleck’s work has been exhibited in galleries in the US including: the Nancy Hoffman Gallery, NYC, The Nathan Cummings Foundation, NYC, St John’s University NYC, Holly Johnson Gallery, Dallas TX, Finesilver Gallery, Houston, TX, Blue Star Art Museum, San Antonio, TX. 

Her honors include being named “Best Individual Artist” by the Austin Critic’s Table Awards, FBAIR Residency, Jurors Award- TX Biennial, Artist Residency/Fellowship and Exhibition in Havana, Cuba from Gallery 106, Austin, TX, Artist Residency at the Tinkering Studio of the Exploratorium, in San Francisco, CA. 

Ms. Fleck’s work has been written about and reviewed on the web and in many paper publications including, American Craft Magazine, Public Art Review, Sculpture Magazine, Metropolitan Home, Western Interiors and Design, Austin Home, Glasstire, and Voice of Germany.



Tell me something about you, how did you become a sustainable artist?


I started “dumpster diving” in Boston with fellow art students in the early 80’s as a pragmatic way to furnish my apartment and find free art materials. It was a time of great excesses; we would find mint-condition vintage furniture on the curb and new clothing, store fixtures and lumber in mall dumpsters. I became fascinated with discards and began working exclusively with found objects. After a few years of art school, I grew restless and moved to Austin, Texas where I have continued to work with all kinds of post-consumer items.

In 1993 I made my first can-tab artwork. In 2002 I was tapped to exhibit in Havana for an experimental artist exchange program. Because of our complicated relationship with Cuba, the art I would show in Havana had to fit in my suitcase and not be detected as art.  I stitched together The Dream Dreamed Me,a suitcase friendly, room-sized inflatable artwork made from plastic bags and an upcycled 4” computer fan.

The next pieces I made were huge plastic bag mandalas about consumerism. I was among the first artists to work with plastic bags and my mandalas were well received internationally at the art fairs. I continued to work with plastic bags for the next 15 years. In 2018 my interest in can-tabs as a material was re-ignited by an opportunity to create an artwork for a cavernous warehouse in Austin TX. I gathered an eight-person team to create Cascade: collective thirsta 27ft glittering waterfall made from 85 thousand can-tabs and safety pins. Next was a gallery show of wall based can-tab work, then a FBAIR residency where we created 82linear ft of can-tab installation. Right now, I am working on suspended chandelierlike can-tab pieces in my studio.



Why do you think upcycled artwork is important?


I am intentionally creating beauty from post-consumer waste to bring attention to consumerism and our behaviors that contribute directly to pollution.


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How do you create your artwork? What inspires you? 

The glacial pace of making artwork from can-tabs lends itself to a meditative state. For my larger public art pieces, I work with a group of 6-8 others (much like a quilting bee), to create the chains used in the artworks. Chaining can-tabs is mindful rather than mindless. The act of making this “slow art” is a deliberate contrast to all that is instantaneous in our contemporary lives. As I chain the tabs to each other I reflect on the journey of an aluminum can-tab; fabricated from recycled aluminum, consumed, separated from the can, collected then recycled to the scrapyard, re-sold, repeat.

I inspired by the actions of my invisible collaborators; those who removed the tabs from the can to collect and save, those who drank the canned beverages. Their motives and unseen actions imbue these artworks with layers of meaning.

I am intrigued and inspired by the near-magical social metrics that pertain to the value of can-tabs illustrated by these long-lived urban legends:

  • a gallon container filled with can-tabs is worth $100

  • can-tabs are redeemable for chemotherapy 

  • can-tabs are redeemable for sessions in a medical “iron-lung”

  • can-tabs are redeemable for dialysis

These artworks made from tens of thousands of shiny aluminum tabs expose the compulsions of both the artist who collects them and the consumers who purchase them, while revealing the beauty of disposable items that continually pass through our hands.


How can quarantine be a good moment for becoming more conscious and sustainable?


While Social distancing measures are limiting people’s activities, it a good time for people time to re-think what really matters. Many who have the privilege to stay home are cooking more, consuming less, and getting in touch with their own resourcefulness. We are all breathing cleaner air because of a sharp decrease in carbon emissions directly related to Covid 19.


Stepped Cylinder

Can tabs and safety pins

4.5' w x 6.5' l 


01_Fleck_ treasure1.7_2019.jpg

Treasure 4.7

Can tabs and safety pins

22" w x 35 l x 1 - 1/2" d


07_Fleck_Cascade Collective Thirst_2018.

Cascade: collective thirst

Can tabs and safety pins 

27’ h x 3.5’ w x 1’ d


Photo credit: Philip Rogers Photography


Sparkle notion

Can tabs and safety pins,cnc backings, bolts, nuts washers 

12’ h x 82’ l

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