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Art and environment intersect at The Scrap Exchange

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Just east of downtown Durham, off East Main Street and behind the Golden Belt complex, next to a law office, through a loading dock door and past a wall of stuffed animals, is the spanking new Scrap Exchange.

The nonprofit Scrap Exchange started 20 years ago in a donated space in Northgate Mall. And it spent the past 10 years gestating among the creative community at Liberty Warehouse in central Durham. But when that building's roof collapsed in May, The Scrap Exchange was forced to move almost overnight, and then again less than two weeks later to its current location at the Cordoba Center for the Arts.

The new space is huge, at 22,000 square feet—9,000 square feet larger than its previous home. It houses the full Scrap Exchange retail store, the Green Gallery, the Artists' Marketplace, two Make-N-Take rooms and all the offices, with half the space still left over to use as a warehouse. The Scrap Exchange has entered a new phase of existence.

One simple idea sustains the group: It accepts donations from businesses, factories and individuals of stuff that would otherwise wind up in landfills, and sells the items at less than half of their retail price. The store averages five to 20 donations a day, according to store manager Julia Gartrell, and takes in 42 tons of what would be waste each year.

The Scrap Exchange has woven itself into the cultural fabric of Durham far beyond the circle of environmentally friendly artists who patronize the store. It has drawn a variety of different interests into its fold. Creative reuse has different meanings for different people.

Muriel Williman, president of The Scrap Exchange board of directors, has worked for Orange and Chatham counties managing solid waste. She is interested in the waste reduction aspect of The Scrap Exchange, particularly in the "urban ore" of potentially reusable garbage. "Precious materials are already above ground. We don't have to mine it," she says. "But you have to have a pathway."

The donations are a mishmash of industrial leftovers, dusty attic exiles and nameless plastic thingamajigs. It takes an army of volunteers and a small squad of staff to sort everything by material and value, and to distribute it all to the appropriate sections of the store, as denoted by the large signs hanging from the ceiling. Novelty and vintage items like old film reels or early 20th-century copies of Good Housekeeping are sold at a premium in "Fancy Pants." Fabrics, a major seller for quilters and other crafters, have their own section. And most of the plastic thingamajigs end up in The Scrap Exchange's trademark blue barrels. The miscellany is taken to the group's warehouse, to sit with the accumulated indigestibles of the past 20 years.

The Scrap Exchange's motto is "promoting creativity, environmental awareness, and community through reuse." This mix of ideals seems to appeal to a relatively small slice of the populace—that is, environmentally minded artists. Certainly, the staff and a good number of the regulars are from that mold.

The group's collections coordinator, Daniel Bagnell, is fascinated by The Scrap Exchange as a nexus of inspiration, both by virtue of collecting interesting items and by attracting people who want to use them. He relates the story of a donor who'd brought in several huge metal cabinets, originally used to house radar equipment. Though the donor's wife had made him get rid of them, he took solace in knowing that someone at The Scrap Exchange would appreciate them in the way he did. And that, says Bagnell, "comes from 20 years of being that place where people bring weird stuff."

Executive Director Ann Woodward, an artist herself, says she is proud that The Scrap Exchange has anchored the artistic community, taking erstwhile garbage and turning "it into eight full-time jobs and low-cost resources for thousands."

Artists also earn income through the store; they receive 60 percent of the proceeds of their work that is sold in the Green Gallery or the Artists' Marketplace.

Woodward also considers The Scrap Exchange a kind of grand venture, a pioneering effort to change the very perception of creative reuse. It's definitely not recycling, she says. "That's a whole other industry that's been elevated." Reuse is a conscious, directed activity, one that requires the consumer to take charge and make choices, rather than just toss a bottle into a bin. Outreach events coordinator Rowan Martell adds that through the activity of making art from discards, people are "also learning about the lifespan of materials, and engaging in the reality of waste."

At the very heart of The Scrap Exchange's mission is something that underlies all these motivations. Engaging with The Scrap Exchange, at whatever level, is to absorb a lesson in independence and resourcefulness. Embedded in its mission is the idea of looking at society's lowliest material—trash—and seeing opportunity, even beauty.

Bryant Holsenbeck, a local artist, is a co-founder of The Scrap Exchange and co-coiner of the group's name. Having been a member of The Scrap Exchange community for the full 20 years, she says of her creation: "It's an open door to creativity, to getting rid of your preconceived notions. Isn't that what life's about? Good life is about figuring your next step out."

Martell credits that mental flexibility with swiftly shepherding The Scrap Exchange through the move, noting with pride that "we opened the next day [after the roof collapse] at 11 in the morning." As outreach events coordinator, she spreads that adaptable spirit through hundreds of events a year. She sends her staff to festivals, birthday parties, community gatherings and corporate workshops all over the state.

She notes that while children tap into their creative spirit quite quickly, adults take a bit longer. "You learn the right way to do things, not just the possible way to do things." She recounts one parent who flat-out refused to participate, on account of "not being creative." Forty-five minutes later, it was the impatient child who had to drag the parent away from the creation station. The lack of explicit instructions frees people to realize that "there's no right way to do things," she says. The new perspective can "change life in a fundamental way."

Right now, according to the staff, The Scrap Exchange is still in "survival mode." It launched a capital fundraising campaign last year, with a target goal of $5 million by April 2013. One of the intended purposes had been an outright purchase of a permanent home.

The Scrap Exchange has been abruptly moved into that permanent home, where rent is considerably more expensive, the regular pattern of customers has been disrupted and the back half of the new space is still an unsorted mess.

Despite all this, the staff and volunteers have kept faith. "I'm not worried," Woodward says. She and the others envision a Scrap Exchange that's not only a supplier of creative materials, but maybe even a center for arts itself—a performance space, a site for art classes or the location of rent-by-the-hour silkscreen presses. And as the huge new home gets filled out, more staff will be required.

The Scrap Exchange has been toiling quietly for decades. Now, with a newfound space, patiently built momentum and the plucky resourcefulness that is its calling card, The Scrap Exchange has set itself up for continued success.

"It came before its time," says Williman. "And now it's right on time, in my mind. People are really searching to be able to help those troubled spots in our society."

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