Milk jugs, dishwasher-detergent bottles, aluminum cans. Most of us value their contents but ignore the containers themselves. Once that last drop is gone, a milk jug becomes a worthless shell to be tossed in the recycling bin or, worse, the trash. But when Lauren Karnitz, a painter in Knoxville, Tennessee, looks at a milk jug, she doesn’t see an empty shell. She sees a magnolia.
Karnitz sculpts flowers out of things that people throw away. Plastic containers are her primary materials. Slices of laundry-detergent bottles become petals. Lollipop wrappers, ribbon, electrical conduit, and copper wire become stamens, pistils, and stems.
These plastic flowers are nothing like those dime-store dust collectors pretending to be real. Karnitz’s Eco Flowers are quirky, yet elegant. Some of her creations, like the waxy, luminous magnolias, nod to reality. Her Flower Patch collection turns its petals on reality entirely, looking like a garden from The Cat in the Hat, with Karnitz channeling Dr. Seuss.
The Eco Flowers began as a handmade Christmas present. Karnitz’s sister is an avid gardener and passionate recycler. Karnitz wanted to create flowers her sister could enjoy in winter and knew she’d appreciate them even more if they were made from what otherwise might be cast off.
“I gave her a dozen flowers wrapped in a plastic bag. She loved them,” Karnitz says. “I had intended they be ‘planted’ outside so she could have flowers in the winter, but she put them in a vase and they stayed indoors. Once the gift was made, I thought I was done. But people were so intrigued; they kept asking, ‘What are they?’ My sister encouraged me to keep making them.”
Two other reasons Karnitz keeps making them are her sons, ages 4 and 6, who like to make art alongside their mother. Painting in oils requires toxic chemicals and solvents, substances Karnitz doesn’t want around her boys. The Eco Flowers are something they can safely help with. “They give me the straws from their juice boxes,” she says.
As well as being blossoms for the vase, the flowers are popular as wedding-cake decorations. Others can be worn as corsages or boutonnieres. Besides the magnolias, Karnitz makes lilies, poppies, peonies, roses, and sunflowers. A few are accented with tiny twist-tie “bees,” their wings cut from those juice-box straws.
In the Flower Patch collection, mini gardens of blooms emerge from soda-bottle calyxes, rooted in pencil-shaving “soil” and accented with jaunty blades of grass. Karnitz doesn’t paint or dye any part of a flower’s components; all the colors are true to the original materials.
It takes between an hour and an hour-and-a-half to make one flower. First, the containers are thoroughly washed to remove residue. Then each flower is built petal upon petal, the petals cut from the natural contours of the bottles so they have a sense of movement. Each flower is unique; blossoms are never made the same way twice.
Karnitz has found a way to see past plastic’s dubious reputation to create something that actually celebrates the colors, textures, and shapes of things that people throw out.
“I’m trying to make beauty out of garbage,” she says. “I’m not trying to change people’s opinion on plastic, but just get them to think differently about things. We get used to thinking, ‘This is this and it can’t be that because it’s this’—that a milk jug is just a milk jug. But it doesn’t have to be.”
Even a family of four can drink only so much milk, so friends, neighbors, and local businesses help keep Karnitz supplied with material. “‘Can I have that?’ is now my signature phrase,” Karnitz laughs. “And nobody likes going to the supermarket with me, because I spend so much time looking at all the plastic containers.”
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Images: Thomas MacDonald