repurpose in life

By Kaylin Brian

Hoosiers upcycle to save the Earth

They say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

But these Hoosier artisans are doing more than reclaiming trash destined for a landfill: They’re giving it a second life.

People for Urban Progress

People for Urban Progress, an Indianapolis-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit, has origins in demolition. In 2008, the RCA Dome was slated to be imploded, its domed roof made of Teflon-coated fiberglass destined for a local landfill. Co-founder Jessica Bricker explains, “Long story short, we had to start a nonprofit in order to get ahold of that material.” After acquiring the material, the organization repurposed it into shade structures, messenger and tote bags, wallets and card holders, just to name a few.

“The idea was that we were only going to make a thousand of the bags, and the profits from that were going to go to the shade structures. But people liked the bags so much that we kept making them,” Bricker says.

For PUP, it all comes down to sustainability. “It’s important to use the materials we use because they don’t biodegrade. They’d just sit in the landfill forever,” she says. “What’s the point in throwing away usable material? We’re giving it a second life.”

Since its inaugural project, PUP has gone on to give a second life to other materials that would otherwise end up in landfills: Busch Stadium seats have become bus stops, Amtrak seats have been stitched into handbags and backpacks, and parking garage wood has been transformed into campus benches.

All this work isn’t without effort. The organization utilizes volunteers to help them do the processing, that is, dismantling, removing and cutting away parts of the material that are truly not usable. But they have paid workers as well. “When you buy our products, you’re supporting local stitchers and designers, people processing the materials,” Bricker adds.

PUP’s products can be found at Indy gift shop Silver in the City, as well as on its website,

Nancy Lee Designs

Nancy Lee has been creating jewelry for 25 years. She got her start working mostly with beads, until she took a class at the Indiana Arts Center and found a new love: metal. “It has plastic qualities that are amazing and malleable, and I learned that I could move metal,” she says. “I never worked with beads after that.”

Based in Indianapolis, Lee’s brand of repurposing — taking apart existing materials such as grandfather clocks and old jewelry to create a whole new piece of jewelry — takes a bit of bravery. “I’ve taken someone’s engagement ring. It became worn and thin at the back of the hand. I cut off a portion of it and refashioned it into a pendant,” she recalls. “You’re working with something existing that you want to maintain the integrity of, but also manipulate it into something new.”

And it’s not just engagement rings; Lee has worked with materials ranging from turquoise to semi-precious gemstones to diamonds, what she calls “liberating” them from metals of all kind. The liberation process itself can be laborious, as well, something the average buyer may not realize. “There’s sometimes a lot of manual labor, especially taking apart the grandfather clocks,” she says.
It’s on the maker to help educate customers about the repurposing process, she notes. “Even if the person doesn’t ultimately make a purchase from them, at least they’ll know a little more about what goes into recycled/repurposed materials to make a new thing,” she says. And not everything can be repurposed, either; Lee notes that she takes care to send her scrap items to refiners so that they can be recycled.

Her products can be found on her website,, as well as her gallery in the Circle City Industrial Complex, which hosts an open house each First Friday.

Gabriel Dishaw

Although his art is far from junky, Indianapolis-based Gabriel Dishaw got his start with sculpting through “junk art.”

“I always had a natural ability in the arts, making stuff, drawing, that sort of stuff,” Dishaw says. “But in ninth grade, my art teacher had written on the board a list of art assignments we could choose from. He wrote something like ‘junk art,’ and that really intrigued me.” Dishaw’s first foray into junk art, a little statue titled “Mary on a Donkey,” went on to win him first place in a competition. “That piece was the catalyst for the evolution of what you see now. It’s the origin piece.”

These days, Dishaw likes to describe his work as “upcycled”: “I’m breathing life back into something that’s been discarded.” He has worked with items ranging from typewriters to adding machines to old computers and, most recently, Louis Vuitton bags. He gets them from eBay or resale shops, describing the pieces as “old vintage stuff from the ’70s, heavily used and has certainly traveled the world.” Then he disassembles them and upcycles them into sculptures of pop culture icons, such as Iron Man’s mask or R2D2. “The idea of taking this premium brand and mashing it up with something else that is maybe not perceived as having value, I really love that journey,” he says.

Dishaw’s hope is that his work, in addition to bringing enjoyment to others, can help shed light on our society’s need for sustainability. “We do live in this world of disposable things, and that’s started to rear its head a bit,” he says, “We need to find creative solutions, and mine is that things don’t necessarily need to end up in a landfill.”

His work can be found online at, or you can see one of his sculptures for yourself at the Sun King Brewery in downtown Indianapolis.

Becky Kiesel

Karges Furniture, known worldwide for its high-end furniture, made a home in Evansville for nearly 130 years. Although it was acquired by a Michigan-based company in 2014, many local residents are still familiar with the historic brand. Poseyville-based Becky Kiesel has been able to upcycle that community connection into jewelry.

“A friend of mine had some aunts who worked at Karges,” Kiesel says. “After they sold the business, she was able to go in and look at some of the surplus items. She found this brass hardware and had the idea of making something for her aunts for a keepsake.” Kiesel’s friend asked her to create the necklaces. “And that’s how it started,” she says.

For a year prior to the furniture store’s online auction, she was allowed to go in once a month or so to look through the brass, which is how she’s been able to continue creating the jewelry despite the store’s closing. “It’s high-quality hardware, solid cast brass designed and made for Karges,” she says.

In years past, Kiesel — who studied jewelry design and hand engraving at Gem City College — worked primarily with beads, but her focus over the past several years has been the brass. “I’ve had quite a bit of success here locally because so many people are familiar with the Karges name, but they are known worldwide with their high-end furniture,” she says. And she didn’t stop at simply repurposing the hardware into jewelry. “I was able to buy some of the Karges extras and parts of their furniture that I repurposed into my jewelry display,” she says.

She also takes a three-ring binder containing a Karges catalog with her to art shows, so that she can show her customers what the hardware in her jewelry looked like on the furniture itself.
Amid her local success, Kiesel’s biggest compliment came from the owner of Karges herself, Joan Karges Rogier: “She was thrilled that the material was being used in a way that would keep it around. She asked me to bring in more pieces and purchased pieces from me to give to her female family members for Christmas.”

In addition to art shows in New Harmony, Kiesel’s work can be found in her Etsy shop.

Déjà Vu Art and Fine Craft Show

At the Déjà Vu Art and Fine Craft Show in Columbus, artwork and wearables alike can all come together in one place, provided they are made of repurposed materials.

“I taught classes for the local solid waste folks at the recycling center, showing teachers and others how to make things out of trash,” says show founder Marilyn Brackney, a former teacher. “The recycling director was impressed. I told him it would be possible to put together a fine art/fine craft show featuring artists who make things out of repurposed things.”

The director offered to sponsor the show, and in 2005, Brackney put on the first show for Earth Day. She moved the event to November for America Recycles Day with a much better outcome, and the show has been held in November ever since.

The artists and exhibitors encompass works of all kinds: metal and wood sculptures, fiber arts, jewelry, wood mosaics, gourd art, among other categories. “We have a woman who works exclusively in denim and does giant portraits of celebrities,” Brackney says. “We have another man who does sculptures from flatware.” One important distinction she makes is that the artwork is technically repurposed, or “upcycled,” rather than recycled: “The only true recycling is if you grind, melt, chop, break something down, and then create something new out of it. Most of these people are repurposing, not recycling.”

Now in its 16th year, the show attracts Hoosiers, as well as regional artists from Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky; the 2019 show boasted 60 exhibitors. Artists can have their artwork judged and win some small cash prizes, but Brackney says, “The main thing is that the artists sell their work — and they do well — and that’s why they come back.”

The next show takes place on Nov. 14 in downtown Columbus. Information is available on the event’s Facebook page.