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Engineering Life Through Art

Sangita Pillai, a self-taught artist, shares her joy of working with reclaimed materials.

When first taking in Sangita Pillai’s artwork, it’s hard to imagine that the materials she used were headed for the landfill. The vibrant colours of saved cardboard boxes intentionally adorned with cut-out magazine pages and paint markers hang boldly in her home. These thought-inspiring artworks remind us that beauty can be found in everyday trash.

Sangita's upcycled wall art collection

Look closer at her art and jewellery pieces and you start to recognise the materials. Can tabs and bread tags create lovely detailing on plant holders; empty wine bottles stand tall with their fresh coats of paint and colourful collage as table displays and vases; PET bottles carved out with intricate designs using a soldering iron make for pretty nightlights and gilded necklace pendants.

Sangita is a self-taught, engineer-turned-artist who, over the years, has also picked up various crafts like origami, weaving, and pottery, in addition to sketching and painting. “I am very curious and keen to learn new crafts, so I love experimenting with different materials,” says Sangita. This deep commitment to her craft is strongly evident in her portfolio of upcycled projects - they are so impressive that we hardly recognise the humble origins of the materials deployed.

Wall art made from magazines cutouts and carboard

Artistically versatile, Sangita’s life has been shaped by a love of creating and a mission to extend the life of everyday materials. “[I] grew up with a mend and repair mentality. Nothing was wasted or thrown out without using it to the fullest. If it was broken, it was fixed. What couldn’t be fixed, was upcycled. And what couldn’t be upcycled was recycled.” This tidbit of wisdom to guide communities to be more conscious of their waste couldn’t be more valuable today. The average lifespan of a plastic bag is just 12 minutes before being discarded and in Singapore, only 17% of domestic waste is recycled.

If those figures sound dreary, you're not alone. That’s why Sangita wants to create joy with her art. A hopeful message that the waste we create with our disposables can have a new lease of life and serve another purpose. “I would like my art to leave the viewer with a sense of wonder, making them look at throwaways with a different perspective”, says Sangita.

Necklace made from plastic bottles

Creating upcycled art projects certainly takes time and effort. One needs to source materials, learn and experiment with the right techniques. (Ever tried cutting through plastic?) and more importantly, it also develops an artistic vision and a creative eye.

As Upcircle helps make sourcing recyclables easier, one of the challenges artists like Sangita face is that upcycled art isn’t as valued simply because the materials used are disposable. This undervalues creativity, time and craftsmanship and not only makes it difficult to sell such art and share the message with others but also perpetuates a mindset that objects that are noteworthy have to be ‘produced new’ rather than ‘made new’.

Bridgeable is a Singapore-based social enterprise that connects donors and volunteers to various causes. Sangita helped to upcycle the shiny fabrics they have been receiving from a local temple into table runners, cushion covers, potlis and picture frames which have been sold and the money donated to a local charity. This endeavour has not only pushed Sangita’s creativity, but has also pegged a market value for such upcycled projects. Knowing that consumers do value upcycled products, she hopes that other upcyclers would be encouraged to work with existing materials.

Sangita exemplifies that satisfying your creative urge while raising a family is possible. As a stay-at-home mum, she suggests starting with small projects that involve the kids - like making toys or games. For those with full-time jobs and looking to exercise their creativity, carving out an hour here and there throughout the day to work on a project or learning a new skill is an excellent way to start.

Recycled fabrics upcycled into runners and pillow covers

“You can find inspiration everywhere,” says Sangita, who finds ideas from Pinterest, Instagram and books which provide a constant deluge of ideas from other creatives and upcyclers. Figuring out how to reuse various recyclables and experimenting with mediums and techniques like recycled textiles and embroidery is a fun challenge - one that presents itself for those wanting to create something unique, functional and beguiling.

Sangita Pillai is an artist based in Singapore.

She can be reached via Instagram @Crea8ivemum.

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