Making Art With Found Materials

Artist Jessica Beels on questioning the materials of our world
Artist Chopstick

Washington, DC- based artist Jessica Beels asks what things are made of, where they came from and where they go after we throw them away. | Photos by Jessica Beels

Working exclusively with found materials might seem unusual, but to artist Jessica Beels, it’s natural.

“I’ve been making things out of whatever I could find for as long as I can remember,” she says. “I didn’t always call it art. I would’ve called it exploration.”

Artist Bird Cicada Back

Clad in fragile wings from the Brood X cicadas native to the DC area in spring 2021, this bird illustrates Beels’ philosophy of giving new life to discarded materials.

Her papier-mâché birds are an extension of this philosophy. Some are quizzical and others are bold, and they just might be exploring their surroundings. It’s easy to imagine that they’re paused between hops, questioning their environment.

Artist Bird Cicada

Animals eat the cicadas and leave the wings behind due to their lack of nutritional value, so Beels didn’t even have to pluck them. “The wings were conveniently strewn about for the taking! Ideal foraging conditions.”

Every bird has character, and each one is an invitation to look closer. One’s plumage might be birthday-present wrapping paper, and another one’s markings look like segments of an old map. The next question might be, how did someone coax the spirit of a bird from these materials, or, more simply, where did these elements come from?

Artist Por

Beels studied art history as an undergrad and has a graduate degree in American decorative art, focusing on how environmental conditions determined what tools were available to people.

Beels’ work stems from a deep understanding of the materials we live with, earned over a lifetime of doing the same thing as her birds: exploring and questioning. Growing up in Manhattan, her family was environmentally conscious, concerned with conservation and recycling, so she was aware of the life-cycle of materials from a young age.

Artist Bird Playing Cards

Some of the birds’ outer layers are more recognizable than others. This one is made of discarded playing cards.

As far back as early childhood, she embraced every medium she could find. Sculpture, embroidery, set design, costume design and jewelry are only a few, but she decided to pursue artwork as a career only after earning a graduate degree in history.

“I created things throughout school,” says Beels. “I had always been an artist. I just didn’t know what to call it yet.”

Artist Bird Grater

A bird made from an abandoned bald-faced hornet nest. The fiber comes from tree bark, which the wasps chewed and reassembled into their nest. It clings to an old cheese grater.

She eventually made the transition to full-time artist in 1995. She explored constantly along the way, learning to make paper and incorporate it into sculptures. She experimented with the possibilities of plastic bags and acrylic. Every piece interrogated the materials around her.

“So few people seem to know where the things in their world come from, or how they’re made,” says Beels. “A lot of the work I do is to get people to ask themselves, what are you looking at?”

Artist Bird Map

Another is made of pieces of a map. The legs are often made from the wire spines of spiral-bound notebooks, and sometimes from clothes hangers (though those are tougher to shape).

The recycled birds appeared in 2016, when the Washington International School asked her to train kindergarten teachers in the art of papier-mâché. Instead of buying new supplies, Beels collected household detritus: a toilet paper roll for the body, wire for the feet, and some paper.

Artist Red Birds

A flock of birds made from recycled paper and toilet paper rolls perch on a shelf.

The result is simple and versatile, and the message of conservation is inseparable from the form: new life springing from waste. “I’ve been making them ever since,” she says.

Artist Blue Bird

This bird’s plumage is two kinds of reused wrapping paper, Thai and Japanese, both made from beaten mulberry bark, which is soft and durable.

The most concentrated iteration of her oeuvre, they perch inquisitively, this one testing its footing, that one searching for nest materials. As they explore, they invite viewers to ask the question, what am I looking at? It’s a call to stop and consider the things that make up our surroundings, things we use and throw away.

Artist Bird On A Ball

An uncovered bird made of postcards and packing newsprint perches on a found newel post finial.

“They’re little messengers,” says Beels. “They fly away and start conversations around the world.”

Categories: Artists & Artisans