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Redeeming Waste: Art from Everest

How a Canadian sculptor turned hiking debris on the world’s tallest mountain into art.

It’s early morning near Namache, Nepal, October 13, 2022. Mount Everest and surrounding mountains of the Khumbu Region provide a stunning backdrop that seems almost surreal. In the distance, collar bells are heard as cows and yaks walk the footpaths. Nearby, prayer flags flap in the stiff breeze. Coffee in hand, he walks to the pile of garbage and stops to think. He can spot a dilapidated stove, old food cans, crashed helicopter parts, corrugated steel roofing material and a flag pole.

It’s time to get to work.

This was daily life for Canadian artist Floyd Elzinga and his wife Carolyn during a recent six-week artist residency in northeastern Nepal. Together with their employee, Jeff Buikema, Floyd and Carolyn worked with an NGO called Sagarmatha Next to create art from the rubbish left behind by climbers and tourists over the years.

CC: How did you get connected with the work of Sagarmatha Next?

Elzinga: One of Sagarmatha Next’s partners, Sequoia Schmidt of the Denali Foundation, reached out to me through social media and invited me to consider the opportunity. The area suffers from the classic paradox of a remote and sensitive area drawing in visitors and money that inevitably leads to its demise as a result. Together with the Saraf Foundation, these non-profit NGOs are actively engaged in preserving the environment and educating all on the importance of waste management by cultivating and showcasing art.

How did you prepare for this trip?

It was enormously difficult to plan not knowing what the materials would be or what tools I’d have available. Before our trip, I invited Jake Boekestyn, a talented young welder, to come and teach us all how to stick weld, a common welding technique that would be useful with limited resources.

What surprised you on your journey towards Everest?

Everything requires so much energy, from breathing to getting supplies! A flight of stairs had me winded and gasping for air. Furthermore, I knew in theory how remote it would be, but it really sinks in when everything you need travels an elevation of 3,700m on someone’s back (trekker, porter, yak or mule). I was also amazed by how much water we needed to drink to stay hydrated. Hydrating is a full-time job at such heights and not to be neglected!

What’s your perspective on the garbage you saw scattered from years of humans exploring this part of Nepal?

The reality is that waste is produced by everyone, everywhere in the world. The primary issue with the area is its remoteness; everything is either carried in by locals, tourists, porters or helicopter. All of the waste and by-products need to be transported back the same way. Sagarmatha Next and the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee have developed a “Carry Me Back” program encouraging everyone to take a 1kg bag down to Lukla for processing. Waste management is a key component to any successful society but reining in waste production (single use plastic, non-repairable devices, disposable technology, disposable fashion) is a critical and major problem that needs to be addressed globally and locally.

Tell me about your piece, Hope.

Hope is approximately 4.5 metres tall. This was our largest piece, the focal point of our time at Sagarmatha Next. It is built on a defunct cellular telecommunications rack, leftover construction bolts and corrugated roofing steel. The stump is filled with and constructed from waste that includes a stove, food cans, roofing materials, a propane canister, an aluminum kettle, light fixtures, crashed helicopter parts –

Crashed helicopter parts?!

Yes, each object comes with its own history but some of the pieces come with a certain tragic weight. I also included a thermos, hydraulics from a bulldozer, a hot water heater, paint cans, coffee cans, a mailbox, lanterns, a pressure cooker, rebar, concrete mesh, an ammunition box, a battery charger, corrugated steel roofing material, a solar water heater, a flag pole, plumbing pipes, folding chairs and other random metal of unknown origin. The leaves of this piece (made from a crashed helicopter pre-burner ring we thought was stainless steel) will remain shiny forever since they are made of titanium!

Much of these objects are visible through the opening on the front of the stump, like peering into the past. But out of this garbage-filled stump springs forth a redemptive shoot, a new creation, that reaches over the sculpture and the viewer.

Powerful and comforting. You also created a number of smaller pieces and hosted an Open Studio on site?

I started with making a couple panels out of roofing steel and representing the iconic scene of Everest, Lhotse and Ama Dablam. The mountains are so omnipresent that it was impossible to keep them out of my work. Those pieces really resonated with both the locals and trekkers, so much that I sold several works just after completing them. The goal of giving garbage a new value and incentivizing its removal from this remote area was being realized in the moment! I was suddenly overwhelmed with how much more I could do. Too many ideas. Too much garbage. Not enough time. Knowing that a portion of the sale of these artworks goes towards the great work of Sagarmatha Next propelled me to make as much as I could in those six weeks.

Sounds like you’ve only just begun.

Yes, I look forward to returning.

To view more photos and stories about the amazing hosts of Sagarmatha Next, find Floyd Elizinga on Instagram and Facebook


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