Cosmopolitan’s artist in residence finds abundance in trash

Artist Steven Spann is working on a painting comprised of waste from the recent Strokes concert at the Cosmopolitan. It’s a swirling mass of found objects integrated into one canvas with the help of some black and white paint. As he points out the shoes thrown onstage, the lost-and-found hoodie, food wrappers from the Green Room, T-shirt order slips and ticket stubs, clusters of hotel guests pause to watch through the glass walls. Which is exactly what they’re supposed to do—although Spann would prefer they come inside for a chat or even donate some trash of their own. Engagement with guests and even hotel staff is Spann’s goal for his time as in this fishbowl studio/gallery, known as the P3 Studio.

Spann is the second (Fab 5 Freddie was the first) artist in residence at the Cosmopolitan, and he’s working on a show called Trash = Art. Spann spent 10 uninspiring, if lucrative, years as a financial adviser before committing to his dream of painting. Now he spends his “office hours” turning hotel trash into art. Citing the late Dennis Oppenheim’s interest in “seeing where art came from,” Spann keeps the trash from each part of the casino separate. (For example, he has one painting composed entirely of public-relations trash.) Spann took some time from his creation to explain what separates good trash from bad.

Why did you start working with trash? To save the environment?

It was more laziness. My studio is so messy. Whenever I work, it’s a disaster area, so if I’m working on a piece, I’d see a piece of Styrofoam over here or piece over there. It was more that trash is accessible and it’s free, and it helps clean up my space if I use it.

Has it made you more environmentally aware?

Of course it makes people more aware. For me, it’s kind of like using the whole buffalo. You have corporations that have tons of great trash that are put into landfills. Then you have tons of schools that are getting their budgets slashed and their art programs slashed. If there was a way to take some of this material and package it in a way that they can use it and find it usable, and all of the sudden it’s not a matter of scarcity. It’s a matter of abundance.

How do the employees react to having their trash repurposed?

I think they’re really into it, because they keep coming back to see what’s going on. They’re interested in their trash. When you throw away a gum wrapper, your thought of that wrapper is gone after it’s thrown away. They give me a gum wrapper, and they think, “What’s going to happen to that?” and they come back to look. They start thinking there’s more potential to this than I originally saw, and in a way they’re kind of critiquing it. It’s certainly changed me since I started doing this, and now everything I throw away, I have to take a second look at.

What’s the difference between good trash and bad trash?

All trash is good trash, but there’s good, better and best. Good is the typical cardboard, FedEx boxes, that kind of stuff. Really interesting trash to me is the trash that has distinct labels or textures. You can take a FedEx box and have it come from anywhere, but something specific—like a giant fish head from Milos or a pig’s foot from Jaleo—is really interesting because you can trace it.

Who produces the best trash at the Cosmopolitan?

I’d have to say the most unique trash is the lost-and-found. The tourists have good trash.

Do you feel like there’s an aspect of performance art, of being on display in this studio?

A little bit, yeah. I’m not a performance artist, per se. And I’m not running around trying to perform. It’s just a by-product of what’s going on here.

What’s next for you?

What I’d like to do, and I’m trying to find a sponsor for this—I want to take all the trash that I create during a year and not have anything at the end of the year that is not a piece of artwork. I want it all in one space, where people can come in and see a year [of trash], one year in an average life. What is the volume of trash that is generated? So now I just need someone to fund it.

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