One of the surprising success stories in the world of recycling is that of discarded tires. Of the 303.2 million scrap tires generated in 2007 – that’s one for every person living in the United States – nearly 90 percent by weight were recycled, according to the most recent figures from the U.S Environmental Protection Agency.
More than half of all reclaimed tires in the U.S. are used to fuel factories. They can also be used to treat wastewater, or made into asphalt, playground equipment, carpet padding, shoes — and more tires.
In the hands of Chakaia Booker, they can also become remarkable sculptures. A preferred medium for this New York-based artist, she deconstructs used tires then cuts, shapes and folds them into massive and highly textured shapes with supports made from steel, wood and other materials, which are hidden from view.
Booker’s work first attracted international notice in 2000, when a 12.5′ x 21′ wall relief of shredded and rewoven automobile tires, inner tubes and cow milking pods titled “It’s So Hard to Be Green” was part of the Whitney Biennial. Since then her sculptures have become part of the permanent collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Akron Museum of Art and NASA, among others. She has participated in both group and solo exhibitions in museums and sculpture gardens throughout the US, Japan and the Netherlands. She has received the Pollock-Krasner Grant in 2002 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2005.
Working with tires requires special skills. “It takes a lot of body work,” she said when describing how she must first cut through the tires, which each weigh 15 to 20 lbs — and she goes through 1000s of them in her studio, an old laundry facility in Allentown, Pennsylvania. “The tires com from streets and landfills, from cars, vans and trucks.”
Many of her sculptures are exhibited out of doors. Recently, four of her sculptures have been displayed in the median of a major highway, New York Avenue, outside the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC from March 8, 2012-April, 2014. This unique installation is the result of the museum’s partnership with several public and private agencies to produce and maintain the exhibit for the enjoyment of both drivers and pedestrians. It is the museum’s second exhibit on this median which is the only public art space in the city featuring installations of contemporary works by women. Images from the Booker exhibit on New York Avenue are below.
Booker, is also known for her creative wardrobe and wants her appearance to also be a work of art. She often wears a giant headpiece made from multicolored yarn layered into an oblong mound, colorful fabric or tire rubber that covers all her head but the shape of her face. She said, “When I get up each day, I begin with myself, as far as sculpting myself.” Her sense of unconventional style began early, and goes back to her childhood when she learned to sew and ignored the rules.