Peak curtains


Dear Artist,

Recently, Steve Howard, Head of Sustainability at IKEA, declared that developed countries have reached “Peak Curtains.” He was speaking at a Sustainable Business debate hosted by The Guardian. “In the West, we have probably hit peak stuff,” said Steve. “We talk about peak oil. I’d say we’ve hit peak red meat, peak sugar, peak stuff… peak home furnishings.”


“Red Pool” by land and installation artist Andy Goldsworthy

After reporting an annual net profit of $3.5 billion — achieved by providing fast furniture to Western consumers and by finding new customers in developing countries — IKEA announced a goal to double its sales by 2020 by pivoting away from disposables and instead making things that can be repaired and recycled. I’m reminded of the era when my grandfather would honourably rewire the melted plug on our family’s electric teakettle.

As an artist, perhaps you’ve already been feeling a bit of “consumption sensitivity.” As makers of things, creative people understand the conversion of the invisible into the manifested and the credits and debits involved. Unless painting in water or chocolate syrup, works of art are designed to be permanent. The making of art can also produce waste, making it both materially indulgent and perhaps the most sustainable of all things. Art, by its very nature, is built to outlast civilization.

“Art was, seriously, the only thing I’d ever wanted to own,” said David Bowie when discussing his collection with the New York Times in 1998. I imagine an artist surrounded only by art, perhaps through a radical mandate to minimize the acquisition of non-arty things. Some artists produce work to further a message of conservation — telling the stories of the environment — and some are right now developing new ways of “green” expression. The future may hold for us a way of making permanent art that never peaks.


Land art by Andy Goldsworthy



PS: “A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers but borrowed from his children.” (John James Audubon)

“Life imitates art.” (Oscar Wilde)

Esoterica: The term “Sustainable Art” is most often associated with art that doesn’t cause environmental damage and also promotes the principles of sustainability. Think, for example, of the Land Art movement that began in the 1960s, where impermanent work was made within the environment, using only natural materials like water, rocks and leaves. The work was then left to erode under natural conditions, as a response to what many artists felt was a plastic, over-commercialized world.


Land art in ice and snow by Andy Goldsworthy

In 2001, a Princeton University work study tallied 288,000 visual artists in the United States, including master bird sculptor and naturalist Tony Angell. Tony’s recent book, The House of Owls, shares drawings and observations of pairs of Western Screech owls that nested on his Seattle property over the last 25 years. A New York Times bestseller, The House of Owls is also a winner of the 2015 National Outdoor Book Award (NOBA).

“Think globally, act locally.” (Rene Dubos)



  1. Thank you for another insightful and pertinent posting.. I struggle sometimes with conscience about the waste or the tools I am using….oils, and strive to find products that are less impactful…..gamblin’s solvent free medium is great. And dabble in water soluble oils as well, although I’m not in love with them yet. Thank you also for the book suggestion….I am a lover of owls and had one nesting in our palm tree for years until it died a couple of years ago…I fear from poison….we have signs out asking that people please not put out rat poison as it it a main part of the raptors diet and it was affecting our population. Anyway… ever I am deeply appreciative of your sensitivity and look forward to these wonderful postings… are a generous and gifted human.

  2. Art includes anything made well and consciously by hand. Beautiful chairs, individually made clothing- whatever a creatively energized human being wants to make is art. We don’t have to fear the making of objects. The real point is making something that truly communicates, and isn’t designed to just make some quick money. That kind of art will end very rapidly in these new times. Think of how we revere small stone or clay carvings of ancient times! Observe the creativity of Africa. Westerners have become consumers of culture, as we know. With all our leisure, we watch movies, watch computers, eat fast food, buy clothing made by desperate people in foreign countries, and never employ much creative decision making in our lives. The art is created mostly for sale. That won’t work now.

  3. Every artist /art school/ program should have a course on how to tread as lightly as possible and how to deal with art tools and materials in an environmentally responsible way . [ There is a book for you Sara]…… Using “stuff” that can be used over and over instead of throwing it in a trash bin is certainly a start …… and not dumping toxic elements into our environment that can go to recycling depots needs a bigger push as well…. [ of course trying to find non-toxic tools and materials is even better]…..

    I like the idea of having only art in my world ….

  4. I love your insights, and those of your father’s. Thank you. I paint in watercolor and we, too, have issues with preserving the environment and recycling our materials. It takes acres and acres of paper to learn just the basics or our craft. But instead of throwing away discarded “mistakes,” I have kept this paper in a separate drawer for some other creative use. As in using the “wrong” side for something else? Suggestions anyone?

      • Awesome idea! I was trying to teach my self watercolors. I am great at backgrounds and making mud so far. An artist cooperative that I belong to holds and annual show making art with recycled materials. I made bookmarks of the prettier sections of my failed watercolors. They were lovely!

    • Susan Winslow, you got me thinking about reuse and the wrong side. If you paint different liquids, such as oils, on that side wouldn’t the “mistakes” show through at varied intensities?

      • Luella Gilchrist on

        You can even paint over the bad painting, in oils or acrylic.. If using rag watercolour paper you have to prime with gesso or something to protects the paper from rotting. If you are using paper without rag you can just paint straight on it. The oil will preserve the paper.

      • Often those mistakes can be beautiful in themselves and can be recycled in many creative ways. It takes an “open eye” to see possibilities. I have learned to re-do paintings, collages and mixed media sculptures, sometimes over & over, playing & having fun, but not accumulating more creations that end up in storage, or worse. Recycling can be a great learning opportunity. I see great value in the impermanent, as part of evolution of the creative spirit

    • You can actually make new sheets from the old. It’s really not a difficult process. I do it with even the creepy low grade paper from the computer printer, but decent watercolor paper would make beautiful recycled paper.

    • I also work in w/c also oils. Have used the (other) side of paper to come out w/ a painting , no problem. I am trying to do more oils, as framing is expensive, plus it’s good to change, It’s such a blessing to be graced w/ art, it’s soul food!

    • You can wash out a great deal of paint from watercolours, even thalo colours are less prominent. Make a pool of water about 2 – 3″ (5 -8 cm) deep in a bath tub, shower stall (block the drain with a piece of rubber), or construct a pool with 2x4s on edge and heavy plastic (vapour barrier or shower curtain) as a liner , Slide the paper(s) under the water and leave for about 15 minutes. While they are still under water, sweep off the old paint with a large soft brush, one you do washes with.

      You can sweep the whole page, or only disaster areas. If only disaster areas,slide the paper out very carefully, holding it by one one corner, so the water sheets off before you remove it to dry it, preferably between other absorbent papers. If removing all possible paint, you needn’t be quite so careful in removing the paper as there is nothing you want to preserve. Dry it between newsprint or press it onto a surface that will not leave marks, such as a large glass door, or the side of a bathtub for smaller pieces. Blot with a towel to hasten drying. When it is nearly dry, and not flat enough to suit you, you could then press it between clean dry papers or towels. Then weight it. That weight could be an inverted table top or a pack of paper protected from the drying paper with a piece of plastic (that same shower curtain). You will still have some colour remaining, but can treat it as a toned paper. Turner toned his, so you are in good company!

      A friend of mine cut ups her hopeless WCs and incorporates them into collages, sometimes cutting figurative elements out of some paintings and inserting them into other ones.

      You can also paint on the back sides; just be sure to be neat when painting the front side.

    • Use them for mixed media creations. I also had stacks of watercolor failures. I studied with an artist who shared her techniques using acrylics, gesso, and collage. I never throw anything away.

  5. Gabriella Morrison on

    Everything in the world has a life span, whether ephemeral or glacially slow eroding or transmuting. It helps to take a long view when considering objects with which we choose to live. I find myself not able to attach too deeply to my own production of objects, because I realize that most if not all of it will be consigned to the midden of the world. There is still in me great reverence for the process of actualizing ideas in concrete form; it is the doing that seems most important.

  6. I like the idea of making art with detritus – art about the environment, art about my life, found objects and materials tossed away without much thought as to what they are doing to our landscape and without much thought as to how their life may be extended or amplified with meaning about the destruction of our natural world.
    I’ve made a few pieces – “construction paintings” – using my mother’s old drapery and upholstery fabrics and wires (not old wires, but new and not old duct tape, but new) and other items I salvaged from my mother’s things after she died. It was fun. I enjoyed the extra meaning that came from the objects belonging to her, and how it helped me express my anger and better understand our failed relationship.
    But I confess, I used both old and new materials. And ultimately, when I moved from Sacramento to Florence, Oregon, most of those pieces landed in the collection of Mr. Dumpster. I did not help the environment in the long run. If I had kept the artwork, maybe. Then again, it would eventually be ripped off the stretchers and thrown away.
    I also cannot quite separate myself from the idea of making money from my art. Admittedly, that has not made me a millionaire by far, but a sale creates warm and fuzzy feelings, like those tingles you feel when you are in love and your partner pulls into the driveway after work, I question that if one makes art that is temporary, that dissolves back into the ground or floats away on a breeze, and writes a book about the art and process, you may make a little money. And you may educate a few people or provide them with some enjoyment, But eventually, as dismal as this sounds, the book may find itself back in the dirt of detritus from whence the materials for the idea originated. Hopefully the book can be made without toxic inks and glue and will not do as much damage to the environments as other materials.
    I don’t mean to be down in the mouth. I recommend everyone to try making art from non-typical resources and processes. It opens one’s eyes to immense possibilities: making art with meaning that reaches millions of people in different ways; in viewing art and understanding its purpose; and in viewing the world and your life purpose anew, with fresh eyes.

  7. Thanks for this great post, Sara. I am astonished by private schools and institutions that have not yet caught on to the concept of what it means to leave a carbon footprint. The public schools in my area are very good about recycling in the cafeteria, but it doesn’t extend into classroom teaching. One of my part-time employers (private sector) says “Throw away all scraps.” I save EVERYTHING and make wonderful stuff out of it! When we throw something away, we must understand: THERE IS NO AWAY!

  8. you read minds – about the teakettle – santa brought me a new Russel Hobbs – so good for people who put a normal kettle on the kitchen range to boil and go back to the easel till the smoke alarm tells them they’ve done it again.
    I recommend it and it will be quite awhile before it peaks. the Kcups are nice too….save the day.

    ALSO Andy Goldsworthy’s Land Art – I do that..and have clipped and saved art in snow and ice for years …here comes the blizzard….as soon as it is safe, we used to gather a group to snow sculpt – for no commecial reason or for a cause…..or just for “INK” and ESPRIT.

    The Montessori games for children book took up my ground snow labyrinths…lucky me.

    See you in NYC in Spring!


    my P.S. put your Dad’s name in a hat for an award for KEYS….What a body of work he amassed! Organized and always FREE! It’s the starving artists that need it most and so that is the best part. Respectfully Elle Fagan

    • I am very much against the K cups. It is very wasteful of resources,and fill up the landfills with non recyclable plastic. We should be thinking of the environment and sustainablity.

  9. Thank you Sara. I struggle with this myself. I love painting, but feel guilty for the paints I use. I love the beauty of nature which no one can really ever capture the breathtakingness of and more and more thinking that it is the only true art we need. The making of my paints is destroying the greatest artistry… And this is something I grapple with. Making art with recycled mediums is something I have been exploring. I don’t want to think of my art as contributing to the great pile up of useless trash and the poisoning of the earth and it’s amazing creatures.

  10. Oh yes, we go forward, plunging into the abyss of creativity, creating things we have been told are acceptable and “creative”. We use only those things which has have a stamp upon them labeling them as environmentallycorrect/politically correct, but WHAT is art. It is a pile of left overs used to make a different pile of left overs? Is it about saving paint so we may create more art, is it about , what. Just exactly is what art about? Oh, I know someone will fall back on all of the new saws of, why yes it is about reuse of materials, yes, it is about saving money or yes, yes it is is about something that is less about art than all of the things listed above.
    Is it not about studying the works of the artists who came before us and then using that understanding to develop a language of our own to create works of art that add to the continum of art itself that in turn inspires others. Is it not about balance, composition, line, plane, the understanding of the relationships of all these things. It is about color, about mathematical relationships, yes math, about beauty and movement, and much more in our created art. Are we artists or recyclers? As a painter I can honestly say it is not about saving paint. Please, stop recycling, embrace that which is art. Please do not email me. My intent here is to add a different view and perhaps stimulate someone to continue beyond a a present comfort zone.

  11. I learned methods and materials and drawing the old way while being influenced by Abstract Expressionism. I have always kept to the idea that art should be permanent and I work to make mine as permanent as I know how. That philosophy seems to have changed lately in a lot of casas.

  12. It may be the result of growing up on a small farm, but my mind always turns to mending or re-purposing things. I might be called a pack-rat, but it gives me great pleasure to be able to see a solution and make it happen with things I have on hand. Mind you, we live in an ‘isolated’ mid-Yukon community, so running to the store to get a new item is not in the cards. At any rate, what bothers me most about trips ‘outside’ is the overwhelming consumption.

    I’d never really considered my art-making a consumer ‘heavy’ process; although, I am keenly aware of the increasing array of canvasses. Perhaps I need to re-think what I’m doing.

    Thanks for the post Sarah!

  13. Now here’s a thing, this post has made me think of the contradiction of my last 30 years as an art restorer. I have restored and conserved so many pieces which I hope will last for future generations, but what price has the environment paid for all the chemicals, disposable items and power to generate the gizmos I have used, should the art have died a natural death after all and should I have done something else with my life…….think I will go and contemplate this in a darkened room.


  14. The best way to create sustainable art is to make it so good that it doesn’t end up in a landfill. But even if it does end up in a landfill, is that so bad? At least we will have more beautiful landfills.

  15. Sara,
    I love reading your article and reading the dialogue. I agree, we all need to work carefully with an attitude of awareness regarding our responsibility to work sustainably! And I find that every little thing can help. It is a process that can expand our way of working. Most of us have experienced the surprising effect of boundaries on refining and sharpening our work! Bravo that IKEA is leading the way in the industry!

  16. Thanks for a thoughtful letter. I moved to walnut oil instead of mineral spirits as a less toxic option for cleaning brushes and as a medium for painting. I also use my iPhone to photo art magazine images I like, to store on my computer. Then I donate the magazines to the Goodwill, for others to enjoy. That way I maintain a minimalist home and the magazines get reused. Many thanks!

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Featured Artist

Sheila is comfortable in nature. It’s evident in her art; and she hopes her paintings give others an opportunity to visit those places with her. The comfort transfers to her work, and acrylics allow her to start quickly with bold brush marks and layers of translucent colors; techniques that have developed over time and through exploration. Her work can be seen at Michelangelo Fine Art. She is a member of several local art groups including the Federation of Canadian Artist and The Alberta Society of Artists.


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