Photo: Ian Christmann

Photo: Ian Christmann

~Carolyn Christmann

Pick-up Artists de-litter the landscape in Quinnipiac River Park

Desmond drags the broken chair from the water’s edge, disentangling himself from discarded fishing wire as he goes. Zoe aims her garbage picker at cigarette butts and bottle caps. Eight-year-old Roan searches the crevices for broken bits of styrofoam. While musician Adam dumps sludge from mud-encased beer cans, postulating about the urban archaeology of civilizations only 20 days past. Two hours and 12 garbage bags later, the ragtag group, playfully known as the “Pick-Up Artists,” sits together by the river’s edge, enjoying the scenic landscape so recently redeemed from blight, and turning their attention to making art.

Started by New Haven artist Zoe Matthiessen, the Pick-Up Artists campaign is part clean-up, part connection and part creativity. It is an opportunity for artists to come together and clean-up beautiful — but heavily-littered — public spaces, which made the scenic — but trash-laden — Quinnipiac River Park the perfect spot for the groups’ second gathering.

On a sunny Saturday in October, ten people wandered Quinnipiac’s banks with bags in tow, including Zoe and some of her artist friends, local community members, and a college student who drove from Middletown to join the effort. While not a large turn-out, the participants left no stone unturned when it came to fishing the debris from the tall grasses and crevices in the rip-rap (riverside armiture).

“It’s not easy recruiting people to pick up garbage,” says Zoe, whose own interest in trash began long before she formed Pick-Up Artists. “I address the subject of garbage and pollution in my environmental art,” she explained, detailing the irony in her drawing of a duck with a discarded chip bag stuck on its head. Not just any chips, she notes, the all-natural organic kind of course.

Like many artists inspired by nature, Zoe was deeply disturbed by the trash she encountered in New Haven’s parks and waterways. She describes sketching one day in East Rock, and the persistent distraction of a plastic bag flapping in the branches of a tree. “It drove me crazy,” she said. Not long after, while biking by Long Wharf, absorbing the beauty of clouds and water, she observed two seagulls on the side of the road, dueling over a piece of garbage. Distracted by its styrofoam-encased prize, the victorious bird didn’t see the approaching vehicle until it was too late. Watching the seagull get struck by a car was the last straw for Zoe. “That’s it,” she resolved. “I need to pick it up.” Soon after, Pick-Up Artists was born, and hit the ground…drawing.

Zoe’s idea was well received, with positive response through Facebook, ads and flyers. She partnered with New Haven Parks and Recreation, who provided tools, supplies and disposal of the trash, and received a generous donation of art materials from Artist & Craftsman Supplies on Chapel St, including paper, pens, and ink, all which were put to good use by the “artists” who lingered in Quinnipiac Park to get creative after their clean-up.

“We’re a bunch of weirdos,” Zoe noted as ink and conversation flowed among the eclectic group. Indeed the artistic results were as varied as their creators: Zoe’s detailed ink sketch of the view across the river, with self-described lasagna-style trees; Roan’s colored pencil rendition of the oyster boats, complete with waving American flags; Gabe’s pithy poetic statement; Adam’s angry political pen and ink drawing, adorned with an unfortunate, but somehow fitting, ink spill; Desmond’s precise study of a historic lamppost.

As for myself, though often a more anonymous reporter, I couldn’t help but be drawn in. I donned gloves and filled bags, and then — sitting beside the river I have long-known and loved, with friends I had just met — I embraced the creative moment with my own small tribute:

bag-laden artists
find satisfaction
in freeing the earth
from its blight.
uncovering life
that falls through
the cracks.
moments chewed,
broken needles,
crumpled bags,
fishing line,
containers of things
weigh the upward
of cloud, light, water,
bird, flight,
with the gravity
of waste and want.


This weekend a band of creative artists are embarking on a community quest: cleaning public spaces — and relaxing afterwards by making art inspired by the locations they’ve cleaned.

Enviro-conscious New Haven artist Zoe Matthiessen is putting the campaign together. Here’s an interview detailing what it’s all about, and how people can get involved.

Tell us about Pick-Up Artists.
I’m organizing a group of artists interested in cleaning up the trash around us, and creating art together afterwards. We will target heavily littered locations, clean them up, then celebrate by sketching, painting and photographing the beautiful place we’ve just cleaned. Not only is it an environmental act of kindness, it brings together artists who share a mutual concern for this issue. My hope is to make this an ongoing project and that it will lead to doing at least one cleanup event every month. I’ll even bring vegan cookies and banana bread!

What started all this?
For years I’d spent much of my time wandering around in the woods of East Rock with my sketch book, drawing all my favorite trees, trails and secret spots. When Trump was elected, everything changed — I have been mainly drawing trash, in some form or another, since then. On the last Earth Day, an artist friend invited me to join her on a cleanup at Long Wharf. It was my first, and I found it an absolute thrill. What better a way to erase all the trash I’d been so preoccupied with? I wanted to do it again the next day. I made the joke a few times that an artist who picks up trash would be a “Pick-Up Artist” and then it all made sense. Why not? There are plenty of artists who groan at trash when on an outdoor sketch. Why not bring a few of us together? Why just complain—why not make a little dent?

Who is involved?
Pick-Up Artists has partnered with New Haven Department of Parks, Recreation & Trees, which has been very supportive of the concept. They are providing tools, supplies, and training and will handle trash disposal after the event. Though fellow Pick-Up Artists are encouraged to brings their favorite tools of the trade to create with, Artist & Craftsman Supply has generously donated art materials which will be available to the artists who participate in the cleanup.

Who are you?
I’m a self-taught artist living in New Haven, creating art that reflects my frustrations — and my hope: that we can do better, that we can make a difference and that the small decisions we make every day can make a significant impact. I have accepted the fact that while I can’t change the world I can certainly improve my community. I love New Haven. It’s my home! I love it enough to get out there and clean it up with like-minded people and have some fun while doing it.

How many are in the group so far?
It’s hard to say; I’m estimating 10-15 so far. If only five of us show up, I’ll see that as a small victory and not a bad first effort. Picking up trash is not a glamorous thing to promote! I’ve gotten a fair response through a newly created Facebook page, have set up Instagram, have displayed posters, and posted flyers at art supply shops, cafes and galleries… I’ve run ads. I’ve done what I can to get the word out — now it’s just a matter of people coming through, telling their friends, and showing up to the event if interested. I hope my enthusiasm is shared with other people who, like me, would like to see a cleaner and environmentally healthier New Haven.

Can you describe to the artists what kind of art will be created after the cleanup?
Some people might be inspired by the pristine location we’ve just cleaned; others may prefer to focus on the trash we collect. Who knows? Using paints, inks, pastels, pencil, camera in hand… anything is possible. Maybe someone will make art out of the trash itself and really bring it full circle — whatever floats your boat. 

What events are scheduled?
The first is this Saturday, Sept 29th at noon, at the Long Pond entrance to Edgewood Park. There is a great deal of trash on the road side of the park. After it’s handled, we will gather at the pond for relaxing and art-making (and my vegan cookies and banana bread). 
The second event is Sat, Oct 20th at Quinnipiac River Park, also at noon.

Bring your Mom! Bring your Dad! Bring your kids and cousins! Bring your sketch book, pens, and paper! Most importantly, bring yourself and join me in doing something that benefits everyone in the community. Let’s make a difference—and have a good time doing it. (All three of us!)

How does one reach the Pick-Up Artists headquarters for needed info?

FACEBOOK: @NHpickupartist

New Haven Independent