Finding Treasure in Trash

Posted On July 4, 2019

Flavia Lovatelli has built a name for herself in the Columbia arts community by creating from the discards of those around her. Now, she is using her art to show the environmental disaster that awaits us if we don’t become more conscientious about our waste production.

by Abe Danaher

As a young girl in Italy, Flavia Lovatelli did two primary things: create and recycle. Influenced by her mother, who minored in fashion design in college, Lovatelli grew up designing outfits and playing with paper dolls. She created anything – not necessarily the art installations that she has become locally famous for, but instead small creations that she shared with her mother and would win awards for throughout high school.

Paired with her desire to create was a need to collect. Old cans, her father’s cigar boxes, tiny glass vials; anything that should have gone into the Lovatelli household’s trash can didn’t. Looking back now, she would love to say that she was the world’s youngest recycler, and that at age 13, she was just as environmentally conscientious as she is now. But, in good faith, she can’t. Instead, her childhood recycling foreshadowed a future art career built on repurposing materials and, eventually, environmentally conscious pieces.

This career began in the midst of the 2008 recession, when Lovatelli found herself in Charlotte with no job and too much time. She had worked conventional jobs her entire life, while art had always been a hobby she did in the background. But, with no end to the recession in sight, Lovatelli made a change.

“I decided I was going to just dedicate myself, heart and soul, to art,” she says. “Not because I thought I’d make money out of it. But because it was the only thing constant in my life that kept me sane.”

The first project she began was a “trashion” show called ecoFAB, where artists designed dresses entirely from non-fabric materials. The intention was to push artists outside their typical boundaries and to challenge the rigid art scene that Lovatelli felt existed in Charlotte. 

“ecoFAB is intended to make you inject a new creativity into your work,” she says.

After four years of successful Charlotte shows, Lovatelli decided to move to Columbia and bring the trashion show with her. Here, she found a community that embraced her artwork and allowed for her to experiment with it in a way she had never felt comfortable doing in Charlotte.

“Columbia is where I am growing exponentially, where I have no boundaries,” she says, adding that her husband, J.J. Mackey, has played an instrumental role in this success. “I have nothing tying me down. I have nobody stopping me. I have nobody telling me, ‘you can’t do that’ or ‘that’s weird.’ “

As she began creating large sustainable installations, the Columbia community supplied her with new ideas and materials. People came to her with their trash asking if she would like to keep it for an upcoming exhibit. Her answer, as it has been her whole life, was yes.

These materials filled her studio and garage. Many times, after holding onto the trash for years, she gave it to other artists for their work. But, every once in a while, she would wake in the night with an idea.

“I see potential in the dumbest things,” she says now with a laugh.

One of these ideas came as she wound plastic bags into bed rolls for the homeless. As the Operation Bedroll SC project neared its completion, Lovatelli noticed that the handles and bottoms of the bags were not being used. Pained over the idea of letting them go to waste, she incorporated them into a 46-foot-long coral reef installation made entirely of plastic.

The idea for the coral reef exhibit came to Lovatelli after she watched a documentary on the bleaching of the world’s reefs.  As she worked on the project, she began researching more about the environmental crisis occurring in the world around her. She learned that the plastic used in baby bottles was contributing to obesity in America, and that even her drinking water, supplied by the city of Columbia, was contaminated with tiny particles of plastic.

This knowledge became the central message behind the barrier reef and her newest work titled, “The Mutant Forest,” which exhibited at the Anastasia and Friends art gallery and has been accepted into ArtFields 2020. The exhibit consists of tree branches wrapped tightly in rolled-up plastic bags, held together by an unrolled loofah sponge, and topped off by papier-mache thorns.

For the first time in a lifetime filled with art and recycling, Lovatelli is infusing her sustainable artwork with a message of sustainability. Supported by the Columbia arts community, Lovatelli has found a home that embraces her artwork in a way that she has never felt before. Her hope is that now, her artwork can lead to change with a simple message.

“There isn’t a plastic that’s good, none of the plastics are good,” she says. “And the more we keep plastic around us, the more it is killing us.”