New York Artist Derick Melander Turns Old Clothing Into Stunning Towers of Art

Stools crafted from plastic waste, museums constructed out of old bricks, blinds made from recycled paper—the possibilities are endless when it comes to giving cast-aside materials new life. For New-York based Derick Melander, they lay the very groundwork for his art.

Since bursting onto the scene in 1994 upon graduating from the School of Visual Arts, NYC, in 1994, the third-generation artist and sculptor has made waves for his colourfully exuberant, large-scale geometric sculptures created from meticulously sorted and stacked second-hand clothing. Taking the form of walls, columns, wedges and the like—each weighing up to two tons—these works shine an apt spotlight on sustainability and textile waste, issues long close to Melander’s heart.  

This month, Hong Kongers will be treated to Melander’s very first outdoor sculpture, and his first exhibition in Asia, as his 2.4-metre, 700-pound installation titled You Are My Other Me lands in the heart of Wan Chai’s Starstreet Precinct. Constructed entirely from clothing donated to Hong Kong-based NGO, Redress, from the local community, the towering pillar depicts the sea, sky and setting sun with cascading colours traversing from aqua to periwinkle, royal blue and lavender. 

“I hope this project brings people together, and helps them see how being more sustainable in their day-to-day choices can make a difference,” explains Melander.

Days ahead of the installation’s unveiling this week, on show until April 28, we spoke to Melander about this stunning piece and his creative process.

Melander photographed in front of his installation, ‘You Are My Other Me’, in Starstreet Precinct


What inspired You Are My Other Me?

This sculpture depicts an imagined view of the setting sun from the open sea. It’s a point of departure really, since in my heart, I’m an abstract artist. Doing something relating to the heavens was a nice way to tie the piece to the site, to Starstreet Precinct, with street names like Sun Street, Moon Street and Star Street. It’s a very colourful piece.

I leverage colour for its seductive power. I hope people will see my work from afar and think, “Is that actually clothing?” As they come closer and confirm their suspicion, perhaps the wheels will start turning about the problem they have with textile waste. Will they also feel a sense of wonder? Perhaps a garment will seem familiar, reminding them of a friend or loved one. I hope to inspire a sense of pathos and connection.

How did this collaboration with Starstreet Precinct come about?

I’m loving Hong Kong. I’m so happy Swire found me. We are not exactly sure what hyperlink brought them to me, but they were doing research on clothing and art and my work came up. One thing led to another.

Derick Melander’s 2017 work, Ceaselessly Broken and Reconstituted, was commissioned by Diesel for the YIA art fair in Paris
What were the challenges of creating this piece?

This will be my first outdoor piece! I’m really excited. For works like this, they can only be temporary as the direct sun will eventually cause fading. Swire has a thick glass case built for the piece which will also serve to illuminate the piece at night. Without that, the piece would soak up all the rain. It already weighs 700 pounds. Imagine adding water!

What spurred your passion in the arts—and eventually zero-waste, environmentally-aware art?

I’ve always made art but I took a break from age 18 to 25; I was too insecure to put myself out there and be vulnerable. But I have always worked with “found objects.” I like how they are so accessible and a part of everyday life. I’m especially interested in breaking down the barriers between everyday life and art.

I’m an ecology-minded person, I was raised that way, so having an ecology component in my work is inevitable. I didn’t set out to make art about recycling, but the more I learn about it, the more interesting it becomes. The main reason I do this work is because I think second-hand clothing is a really resonant material. I like its connection to the body, to everyday life, to all of us.

Derick Melander’s 2016 work, Night Sky, inspired by New York City
What’s your creative process like?

I’m always sketching and jotting ideas down. They come to me sometimes at the strangest times, like when I am driving or about to fall asleep.

I approach an installation from the perspective of, “What problem am I trying to solve? What message am I trying to communicate?” I am mostly an idea-driven artist. The idea leads me to the materials or the execution. I have focused on second-hand clothing since 2001, because I never seem to run out of new things to do with it. New forms, new colorways, et cetera.

How do you see art at home?

I think art brings a room to life; it brings soul to a room and activates the mind. My husband Scott Hall and I are surrounded by the work of friends and family. It’s nice to have “them” around. Other work we have collected has been driven by our shared excitement. But I also always ask myself, “Do I want to look at this piece every day? How long will this piece ‘unfold’ for me?”

“For me, the process of sorting, folding and stacking the individual garments adds a layer of meaning to the finished piece,” says Melander of his laborious creative process
Any artist who’s been particularly inspiring to you recently?

I’m a bit obsessed with the installation currently on view at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. It’s by Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B. Nguyen.

What is a eco-friendly design lifestyle tip you live by?

I am always fighting clutter. If I buy something, in theory, I have to get rid of something. So every time I get the urge to buy something, I ask, “Do I like this better than something else I already have? What will I toss or give away?”

Favourite travel destination?

I think it may have to be Hong Kong, I am really loving it here. And the food! I have gained five pounds.


See also: Spotlight: Art Basel Hong Kong 2019

Browse our Living section for the latest lifestyle news.