Sustainability and Creativity…Perfect Together: Creating AWE (an Arts from Waste Experience)

Posted on by Lawrence E. McCullough, Ph.D, Grants Officer, Woodbridge Township, NJ

For many people, the concept of Sustainable Living as a means of protecting our environment is simple to grasp, yet challenging to put into daily practice.

Sustainability advocates are discovering that a focused application of creativity principles is one of the most effective ways to integrate abstract theory with everyday lifestyle choice and decisions.

In a densely populated corner of northeast New Jersey, local government officials have devised a creativity-grounded strategy they call AWE – the Arts from Waste Experience – a cluster of hands-on Arts programs designed to teach Sustainability awareness and principles to a diverse cross-section of the community.

Woodbridge Township has long been a poster child for New Jersey’s fabled urban congestion. Surprisingly, for a community that’s been a commercial and industrial crossroads since Colonial days, there is actually a fair amount of Nature still remaining.

But with a population density of 4,225 humans per square mile, the state’s largest shopping mall and a welter of superhighways, office parks and retail complexes engulfing the available terra firma, you have to look pretty hard to find it.

In 2010 Mayor John E. McCormac used funding from a U.S. Department of Energy stimulus grant to create the Township’s first Sustainable Community Plan setting forth strategies and actions the Township would undertake to achieve greater Sustainability.

“We have close to 100,000 residents encompassing a diversity of age, occupation, ethnicity and educational levels,” says Mayor McCormac. “The most efficient vehicle we’ve found to deliver the Sustainability message is the Arts. The Arts get people’s attention, get them involved, help them see how these ideas can operate in their daily lives with positive benefit. When creativity is encouraged, the project result is significantly enhanced.”

The anchor element in the Township’s Sustainability campaign is AWE, a community Arts education program that features a fulltime Artist-in-Residence and several volunteer instructors at the Greenable Woodbridge Museum of the Future who offer free workshops on recycled Art techniques for all ages … but especially focusing on young people who will hopefully take the lead as the Sustainability proponents of tomorrow.

Using cleaned recycled materials from the Township’s Department of Public Works, AWE generates a world of Art from Waste limited only by the imagination of the Artist: denim art area rugs; musical instruments from recycled glass, metal and wood; styrofoam sculpture; basket weaving; clay; batik; natural building; patchwork quilts; origami; wire sculpture; puppet making; recycled paper beads; kites from recycled materials; office decor; papier-mâché masks and more.

Immediate outcomes of AWE go beyond teaching Art production skills and principles of recycling and sustainability to thousands of students and community members.

The works created by AWE Artists are introduced in public areas throughout the Township – from shops to parks to public transit locales – presenting community residents and visitors with prominent “visual cues” that encourage them to think about environmental issues at face-to-face level.

It’s creativity-infused Sustainability advertising minus preaching … omnipresent yet memorable social messaging that’s fun to create and experience and supports the Township’s ongoing “Greenable Woodbridge” publicity effort informing residents and businesses about Sustainable Living opportunities in the community.

Caroline Ehrlich, Green Team chair and Director of the Township’s Office of Sustainability, recalls that the Arts were incorporated into the sustainability planning from the very beginning.

“If you want to educate someone about the benefits of using a rain barrel, you can sit them down and lecture them and make a basic intellectual impact,” says Ehrlich, “But if you have them paint the barrel with a fanciful design, maybe even collaboratively with others, they’re embracing the subject on a much more thoughtful and personal level. Allowing people to access their innate creativity is key.”

AWE has inspired a plethora of other Arts and Sustainability initiatives in Woodbridge: recycled Eco-Drum circle sessions, a Girl Scouts recycled fashion show, sustainable-themed songwriting workshops and poetry readings, contests for designing bike signs, street designs and bike racks reflecting Sustainable Living themes, painting street crosswalks highlighting sustainable themes, planting trees at schools and parks where students make and place clay and twig sculptures.

Members of the Township’s local visual Arts co-op, the Woodbridge Artisan Guild, also participate in AWE. Future projects include using public Art installations to bring attention to the Township’s wetlands restoration areas and brownfield redevelopment sites and to promote alternative transport by identifying greenways, bikeways, walkways, mass transit and alternative fuel vehicle stations.

“Our vision of success for these projects is to have thousands of our residents from every walk of life get involved and start thinking of the environment as something they care about very deeply,” says Mayor McCormac. “It’s going to make a big difference in what Woodbridge Township is like in the years to come.”

If AWE can happen in Woodbridge, New Jersey, why not your town?


Lawrence E. McCullough, Ph.D.
currently serves as Grants Officer for Woodbridge Township, New Jersey and has been an active organizer of Arts and non-profit community ventures since 1973. Dr. McCullough is a musician/composer and author of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, plays and film scripts (see http://www.lemccullough.com for full publication/performance details). He lives in Woodbridge, New Jersey with his wife, the actress Lisa Bansavage, with whom he operates an educational film and theatre organization, Pages of History, Inc.

NOTE:  Creative New Jersey extends its appreciation to Lawrence McCullough for providing this blog post as we celebrate International Creativity Month and we look forward to our continuing discussions regarding the launch of a Creative Call to Collaboration in Woodbridge, a certified Sustainable Jersey municipality since 2009.

Image: “Sitting Man” by Lisa Bagwell in front of the Greenable Woodbridge Museum of the Future. Photo by Lawrence E. McCullough.

2 Responses to Sustainability and Creativity…Perfect Together: Creating AWE (an Arts from Waste Experience)

  1. Julie Gause says:

    I believe that Public Art is a critical component of successful cities. As a Green Team leader, I proposed to the Sustainable Jersey folks that they add Public Art as an action item for points. That was some time ago. Given the nature of this article, I wonder if you might be able to pursue this idea further. It would be a great incentive for registered towns to make public art a priority!

  2. This is AWEsome (sorry for the pun)! What a great example of synergy. Thanks for offering more information on this effort in Woodbridge!

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