Photo: Ian Christmann

Photo: Ian Christmann

Who are the Pick-up Artists?

Local New Haven artist Zoe Matthiessen was all set up on her favorite tree stump in the woods of East Rock Park, sketch book on her lap, ink well at her feet. The initial pencil lines were sketched, the birds were singing, the fish were jumping, it was a gorgeous summer afternoon. But there it was…impossible to ignore…the persistent crackling sound of a plastic bag stuck way up high in a tree branch. All the birds singing could not drown it out, and eventually it became Zoe’s primary focus. With her sketching session now derailed by the small plastic bag, Zoe packed up and was off to a new location.

A few weeks later, while riding her bike along the water at Long Wharf, she witnessed a spectacular display of nature. In a quiet area near the docks, suddenly the water was exploding with sound— waves of silver fish were leaping from the surface. A flock of birds appeared, and were sqawking and diving all around her. It was as if a tornado suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Then, as suddenly as it started, all was completely quiet again.

A spectacular display of nature at Long Wharf, New Haven CT.

Riding home with huge smile on her face, the dreamy state she was in suddenly shattered: A group of seagulls was fighting over some trash along the road in the food truck area. One lost—slammed by a speeding car, in a closeup and graphic collision. So close was Zoe to the impact, she felt she’d been hit herself. Heartbroken, she decided right then and there she’d had enough.

All this garbage! It’s time to clean it up!

Original announcement

With no real strategy in place, but the hope of generating some interest, Zoe put together a Facebook page and designed some fliers using her environmental illustrations with the simple proposal: “Let’s clean up New Haven and make some art.” With the help of friend, Jeanette, also an artist and environmentalist, the fliers were passed out at environmental events, at art shops, bike shops, farmer’s markets, cafes, and from friend to friend. Zoe ran some ads, trying to spread the news of the group’s formation, and New Haven Independent was happy to run an article announcing the activist group.

Soon, Zoe and Jeanette were invited to a board meeting with the NH Dept of Park & Recreation, to pitch the idea. It was well received. The response was enthusiastic, and a great deal of help was offered: supplies such as bags, grabbers, and gloves were provided, and instruction and guidance were given. Five potential locations were suggested for consideration, and Zoe and Jeanette picked out two: Edgewood Park and Quinnipiac River Park. Paperwork was filled out and it was officially game on.


Edgewood Park

The first event brought together a small but enthusiastic team of twelve—one in from NYC— and the work was done along the side of a fairly steep hill. It was treacherous and frankly disgusting, but the area was in pristine condition when The Pick-up Artists were done with it. An attempt at sketching by the duck pond followed, but the group was pretty wiped out from the laborious cleanup and mostly preferred to lounge around the bench area and enjoy relaxed conversation. Many home-baked vegan cookies, banana breads and pastries made their rounds. Though a small group, it was mighty, and the first Pick-up Artist event was a great success. Six of the group went out for a spectacular Indian lunch on Howe Street, discussing politics, pollution and art.


Quinnipiac River Park



The second clean-up brought a new group of ten together (plus the enthusiastic return of Desmond and his son, who cleaned up at the first event). Less treacherous than the hill climbing involved at Edgewood Park, the group descended onto the park like a force. Every bit of trash was removed, and four artists hung out for sketching afterwards. Adam worked an elaborate abstract ink piece, Zoe inked the scene across the water, and Desmond labored over a realistic rendering of a classic park lamp post. Photographer, Ian Christmann, wielded a leaf blower after shooting many fine photos of the group in action (seen here on this site) while his wife (originally there as journalist only) sat down to write poetry inspired by the event. Though she had not originally planned to join in, and was there to document the group, she was inspired to collect a full bag of her own. A small tragedy occurred when a gust of wind blew a water bottle into the river. “NOOOOO!” we gasped collectively. Startled by the sudden commotion, Adam spilled his ink, covering his elaborate piece almost completely in black. He considered it an improvement, and went back to work. It was a satisfying day with great people, a successful cleanup, and it made for some interesting art afterwards.

The Pick-up Artists hope to grow stronger in number as time goes on. Obviously, things will be slow-moving in the winter months — but look out, spring!