Nicole McGee runs Upcycle Parts Shop, an artistic retail project of the Superior St. Clair Development Corp. The store specializes in the art of upcycling — "transforming a material that other people don't see as valuable into something different." Cool stuff can be found on every wall, in every basket, on every shelf. And much like the oft-forgotten neighborhood around this storefront, the process of transformation can be a thing of beauty.
Eric Sandy: There's quite a lot of stuff in here. A lot of variety.
Nichole McGee: We like to look for the inherent value in a leftover material. There are lots of — like, those corks over there became something beautiful and something useful. We have materials from manufacturing waste streams and residential waste streams and offices. You know? It's a broad variety, and we're not trying to tell you what to do with it. We're just giving you ideas and encouraging you to consider what you could use to be creative. Being creative is fun, and there's no wrong way.
ES: It looks like you may be holding a class here later today. What does that entail?
NM: This "art bar" area is open for crafting. Lately — and we've only been open a month, really — but lately it's been kids that come by. Or on Saturdays, parents come with their kids. We were offering that free throughout August. There will be a $5 drop-in cost, but it will continue to be free for people who live in the zip code, just to encourage people to come. Also, we have workshops that we charge for. It's really fun. It's an evolution of my work as an artist. I love to make things from the waste stream; it's so fun for me. I realized when I was doing it as my only work that I felt like I was whittling in a lonely little world. It wasn't what I thought of as "success." For me, being tapped into a broader community and opening up the opportunity for more people is way more exciting.
ES: That's an interesting angle — the community aspect. Do you get a lot of people who have no idea what to expect from a place like this?
NM: Yeah, there are lots of people who come in and say, "I saw this thing outside..." (points to a couch on the sidewalk). There are lots of people who just drive down St. Clair and decide to pull over. And our neighbors have been really great. We say that we're an art supply store; think of it like that. Cleveland hasn't had a model like this. Other cities have, and some people are familiar with that. But the response is usually enthusiastic. And you can come in here with, like, fifty cents and get something cool.
ES: In terms of the neighborhood, is this store being looked at as perhaps an anchor for ongoing and future investment here?
NM: I could talk about that all day. In November 2012, Michael Fleming [executive director, St. Clair Superior Development Corp.] said they were working on a grant and wanted to use upcycling as a revitalization strategy. "Creative placemaking" is the idea of our funder, ArtPlace America. They believe in pulling on the assets and the cultural strengths that already exist in a neighborood, including the residents and merchants who are already there, and working to elevate their experience and economic opportunity and the ways they can engage in their community. It's like art as revitalization, which a lot of communities are doing. St. Clair used to be a main retail "spine" for the neighborhood, and you can see that.
ES: That's a more integrative approach to development than some other neighborhoods are seeing around here.
NM: We are not a private business. We look like one, but if we were we might not pick this neighborhood. There's a lot of beauty here and a lot of rich history here, but it's not a neighborhood that on its own and without support from the grant would be able to sustain this. It's interesting and it's amazing to be able to show up somewhere where people aren't expecting us. Just yesterday someone said, "This type of place is so cool, but it's always on the West Side." And I get that! It's awesome to be here. It's the intersection of an arts revitalization strategy and community organizing and building up a neighborhood.
ES: On my drive here, I saw a lot of public art along the street.
NM: On Norwood, there are a couple projects you can see. We had an after-school club with St. Martin de Porres High School down the street. We did that last school year and we're starting again this month. The students have some real ownership, and it's fun to hear them talk about it. We called it the Upcycle Ambassador Club. A lot of the students who go to that high school do live in the neighborhood, and it's been fun to create some pride in place through public art. We're encouraging them to make art through materials they already have access to. "Upcycling" is the word we use, but it's more about, "What can we use that we already have and how can we reduce consumption?"
ES: How do you go about acquiring all this stuff? Are you looking for certain items or just taking in what comes?
NM: Both. We put a list on our website of things we would love to have. People have been awesome with that. We're also open to random things. The development corporation has a really great guy who has industrial relationships around here, and he's always telling them about us. That's an awesome relationship. As a reuse artist myself, people have been giving me things for years. People are thrilled to be able to bring things here.
ES: What got you initially started with upcycling?
NM: It was a while ago. I had an awesome job, but it was not my passion. I was making jewelry. You're just stringing beads and suddenly you have a pair of earrings that someone is willing to pay you $10 for. It's weird how quickly that transformation happens, from material into jewelry. Then, I was riding my bike to work on Train Avenue, where people dump tons of stuff, and there was a drawer full of costume jewelry. I started thinking, there's a lot of stuff in the waste stream. Like, wait, this is much more exciting for me! And people loved those Train Avenue beads! That was around the time I went to Zero Landfill for the first time.
ES: What are your goals now?
NM: It's great to see reuse as an economic opportunity, as well as a creative one. In five years, in this neighborhood, we would love... I mean, we would need a bigger space, for sure. But I would love to be employing neighborhood residents to make things that we can sell locally and nationally. There's a real opportunity. That's my dream.