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From surplus to sculptures

Students visit the IU Surplus Store. Students visit the IU Surplus Store.

For the past several years, Melanie Pennington has taken some of her students to the IU Surplus Store and let them run wild.

“Within reason, I put no parameters on it,” Pennington said. “I did have to say no to a church pew once.”

Pennington, a lecturer in sculpture and area coordinator at the Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture + Design, has students gather items from IU Surplus to transform into a sculpture. The project is inspired by artists like Marcel Duchamp, who presented everyday objects as art.

“The idea is to alter a ready-made object and switch up its meaning by how you change its context, by adding to or detracting from it,” Pennington said.

A bowling pin is repurposed as a chair leg.

IU Surplus sells items the university no longer needs, with an inventory that includes items as varied as industrial soft serve ice cream machines and IU athletic apparel. Pennington’s class takes a bus to IU Surplus together, and students fill up large carts with items that inspire them. The students spend a couple of days in the classroom working with the materials to execute their visions.

This semester, students’ creations included a solar system constructed from records and CDs, a mouse trap built from electronic waste and a grandfather clock repurposed as a coffin.

Glen Breeden-Ost picked out a wooden chair for his project, as well as one of many bowling pins the store had available. He used the pin to replace one of the chair legs. He propped the chair up in various ways, using a bowling ball he sourced from elsewhere.

“There are a couple of ways you can think about the context,” Breeden-Ost said. “One is taking a bowling pin and putting it in a different concept where you don’t really expect to see it. Then there’s the idea of unstable versus stable — the bowling pin as the leg makes you think, ‘Will this chair hold me up if I sit down?’”

Breeden-Ost said he enjoyed the emphasis on creating something functional, since much of his other coursework is more focused on exploring design concepts.

A football helmet covered in deconstructed shoes.  Derek Gilcher said he liked not having a fixed direction for the project, and changed his idea multiple times before arriving at his final piece. He originally planned to use the four football cleats and football helmet he selected from IU Surplus to create a tiki totem. Instead, he covered the helmet in the deconstructed shoes.

“Slowly a face started to emerge, and I added some more small details to make it look angry and scary,” Gilcher said.

In addition to challenging students creatively, repurposing items also gave them a lesson in sustainability. That’s central to the mission of the store.

“The interesting part is watching the wheels turn while they’re looking at something,” said Todd Reid, store manager. “A lot of stuff they take for this art is stuff that has probably been here for a long time, and someone else didn’t see the value of it and just passed it by. We’re all about landfill diversion, and if someone can turn something into art, that’s a big feather in our cap here.”