Chuck Baxter hasn’t just watched Shaw change over the last 20 years. As an artist who uses neighborhood litter as his medium, he’s helped make that change, cleaning up the streets while collecting materials for his art. Think CDs and discarded envelopes from his former employer, hypodermic needles and vodka bottles. You name it; Chuck has used it.
In addition, Baxter helped renovate the neighborhood playground on Westminster St NW, installing an art-embedded mural. Baxter is also treasurer of the Mid City Artists association
We spoke to Baxter about art and Shaw’s clean-up.
Q: What’s your background? How did you end up in Shaw?
A: In ‘93 I moved here, to this house. It was a completely different neighborhood back then. The playground across the street — back then it was a pit. There were drug dealers hanging out and everything like that in the neighborhood.
Every morning I’d go out and pick up litter on the playground. And, eventually, I started making stuff with that litter.
Q: Why choose the medium of garbage?
A: Well, I’ve always been interested in using the materials that are available in the environment. So my environmental materials that are available are litter; things you find on the street that people toss out in the alleys. I think if I were in a rural area, I’d be more into using grass and natural materials, making baskets and stuff like that.
So it was for my own amusement. I find things, then try to repurpose or use them to create something. And for a long time I didn’t call it art, but everyone else says, “Oh, it’s art; call it art.” So that’s the way it is. When I moved into this house, I did all my work in the attic. When I reached retirement age, I made a studio space downstairs to do the work. It’s where I’ve accumulated all of the materials. Some people would call it trash, and it’s kind of overtaken the space.
Q: How long does each piece take you to create? What’s the process with each artwork?
A: They’re all different. They all take different amounts of time. I’ve been working on one piece for five years. Some things I can put together in a couple hours, and other things take hours and hours to do. It’s not like I’m manufacturing art and can just crank something out.
Q: Is it hard to find materials for your pieces?
It’s not hard to find materials. My problem is I find too much. My challenge becomes, how do I store it? How do I have access to it? I got stuff down there in the back of my mind where I know I have something, but God knows I can’t find it. So the types of stuff may have changed over the years that I find on the street, like a lot of barrettes from kids’ hair, hypodermic needles and drug baggies, and a lot of clothes. Now it’s — I don’t know what the characteristic of the material is now, but a lot of stuff is perfectly good that people throw out.
Q: Do you subscribe to any message, artistic vision, or purpose?
A: I’m not a very cerebral artist. It’s more process driven. I find something and just fool with it until something comes to mind, and sometimes it’s a success, and other times not so much. I suppose the message is that you can see beauty in most anything. I once made a sculpture of used gum I picked up off the street. I guess the other message is recycle, recycle, recycle. I don’t have a political motivation; it’s all something I like to do.
Q: Can you explain your involvement with the DC Commission of Arts and Humanities?
A: I was in charge of the [Westminster Street] playground renovation, chairing the committee neighborhood association. As the renovation project neared completion, we applied for a grant from the DC Art Commission to do art at the playground. The Art Commission made a panel of about a dozen artists. I sat on the panel to select the artists for the mural, and that’s how I got involved in the actual mural project and to a lesser extent, the tiles.
‘Bout the same time there were a group of artists called the Mid-City Artists, about 15-20 artists in this neighborhood of 14th and 17th street. I am now the treasurer of that group. Their main activities are to do open studios during the year, where all the members of the group open their studios to the public to see and buy art.
Q: Have you done public displays of your own pieces at home or in galleries?
A: I had about 25 pieces in a show at IONA Senior Center’s
gallery last year. I had a couple pieces in Art Enables
. There was an environmental art group in Southeast [Washington] I had several art pieces in. But it takes a lot of effort to put yourself out there, and that’s one thing I learned by talking to the professional artists, seeing how they work. The really successful ones, they put a lot of effort into marketing and getting their message out; getting their product out. I don’t put that much effort into that. I’m not making a living off it.
Q: Do you receive a lot of feedback from your neighbors and the community on your artwork?
A: Neighbors come to the open studios and seem to enjoy it. Some also collect things for me and put it on my front steps [laughs].
To learn more about Chuck Baxter, find his information at Mid City Artists.
This interview has been edited and condensed.