An Awesome Reedie I Know: Eleanor Ray '07 + The WasteShed

A community’s Switchboard is only as awesome as the people who use it. 

Because we allow people to use real words (and not checkboxes or form fields) to share the stories around their asks and offers, Switchboard tends to illuminate the incredible things a community is doing and how they got to be doing them better than most tools.

In an effort to share this magic across communities, we’ve decided to highlight some of the awesome Switchboard users that we encountered on our Switchboard Hearts Tour and a little about their journeys.

Our first interview is with Reedie alumnus, Eleanor Ray ‘07. Eleanor opened Chicago’s first operational creative reuse center, The WasteShed this September. She was kind enough to share her space with us for the Reed Switchboard Hearts party earlier this month. Packed to the brim with scraps of fabric, handmade papers, glitter, pompoms and party supplies - all donated, the Wasteshed is a mecca for educators, artists and anyone else who wants to make cool stuff on the cheap. Eleanor offered to tell us more about her shop and how it came to be:

First of all, what is a creative reuse center?

The WasteShed is a creative reuse center based on a nonprofit retail model; the short version of what this means is that we are like a goodwill for art and school stuff. A creative reuse center has numerous positive aspects; it keeps good usable materials out of the landfill, provides a cheap resource for the local creative and educational communities, and establishes a social nexus for people who are interested in creative approaches to everything, from leatherworking to environmental activism.

The advantage of being retail-based is that we can be open to the public, respond to the needs of the community, and cover a lot of our overhead through sales; the advantage of being a nonprofit is that our prices start at 5 cents.

Why did you start the WasteShed?

There is a tremendous shortage of (and demand for) accessible resources for art, education, and environmentalism in Chicago. Creative reuse combines all three; I hope that The WasteShed can become a sort of walk-in switchboard for people who are looking to prevent waste, support educators and artists, make cool stuff, or connect with other people who are doing all those things.

What experiences led you to starting this?

A pretty broad swath of different influences led me here; as an artist I’ve been interested in found and unconventional materials and their properties for a very long time. I’m also interested in making art social and playful, and using it to bring people together to investigate common interests and activities.

I think when I was first introduced to SCRAP by a guy I was dating at Reed, I didn’t really understand what that sort of access to incredible amounts of miscellaneous cheap materials could do to me, but after a while my incessant need to be making something, experimenting and problem solving and prototyping, made me completely dependent on SCRAP. During the many years I was involved with them, I grew fascinated by the multitude of little alternative cultures and economies that fed off of the creative reuse center, and the way that resource subtly enriched and permeated the lives of its participants.

When I left Portland for Chicago in 2012, I found myself in a massive city full of art and schools and trash… but no functional creative reuse center. Phenomenal quantities of good stuff thrown away everywhere, and broke artists, teachers, students, and makers either dumpster diving, trading among themselves informally, or spending small fortunes for new materials at chain stores. Reuse, which in Portland had been a fun pastime I was passionately unserious about, quickly became a complex philosophical mechanism that reframed American history, social justice, developmental psychology, engineering, environmental collapse and resilience structures, design, craft, technology, globalization, art, charity, urban planning, labor, fashion, and cultural mores in all corners of our society.

And it’s that much more interesting of a proposal in the context of a massive, diverse urban area which has many serious challenges, and which doesn’t have the ubiquitous and unquestioned environmental program present in many coastal cities. There was really nothing else I could do.

The ASK:

Eleanor is looking for “creative/educational/environmental Chicagoans to come check out the project and get involved," and has even taken a page out of Switchboard’s book in starting "WasteShed Asks.” If you are looking for something in particular or have materials you can donate to meet someone’s need, get in touch or swing by the shop

She warmly accepts donations of any size to help cover startup costs. In exchange, she kindly offers to talk to anyone about reuse until they are absolutely ready to never hear about it again.