Upcycle Parts Shop engages the community though creative reuse

Nicole McGee has been a self-described "reuse artist" for several years, but her practice wasn't always her profession.

Her background is in the nonprofit sector, doing work in PR and marketing, community fundraising, grant writing, and serving on nonprofit boards. She recalls the exact moment that she realized she needed to work in a more creative and community-focused capacity; it was while she was sitting in her office at a nonprofit health care center listening to her colleagues talk while she stared at her blank office wall thinking about what art could go on it.

"That was an 'ah-ha!' moment," she says. "I had always been a creative person but it was something I just treated as a hobby. I felt my pull was more in community work and being creative. I thought, 'This is an awesome job…for someone else.' It was a hard breakup, but I knew I needed to do something else."

She did some freelance grant writing and graphic design work and taught design classes at the local community college while earning a Master's in Sociology at Cleveland State University.

"I loved studying Sociology because it just felt so related to what I was doing," McGee says. Her thesis on second-hand consumption was titled "Perfectly Good: The Value of Used Versus New."

"It was so fun to interview people and look for trends of people trying to find something used [to upcycle] first [before using new materials]," she says.

One day as she rode her bike to work she found a dress and a whole drawer of discarded costume jewelry on the side of the road. "It was a jackpot," she remembers. "It was nothing valuable, but it was all beautiful."

She decided that if the items were still there that evening, she would take them and repurpose them. They were, so she did; so began her career as a reuse artist.

<span class="content-image-text">Nicole McGee</span>Nicole McGee

The Upcycle Parts Shop, a "thrift store meets art supply shop" in Cleveland's historic St. Clair Superior neighborhood, is the latest evolution of McGee's work as a community organizer, fundraiser, and creative reuse artist.

She describes a chance run-in with Michael Fleming, the Executive Director of the St. Clair Superior Development Corporation. He was interested in exploring creative placemaking strategies to activate public spaces and breathe some new life into the historic district, while she was interested in upcycling as a practice not only in finding value in discarded objects but also how it can lead to community development.

Fresh off her successful 2012 stint with Bad Girl Ventures - McGee was one of the top ten finalists in the high-powered entrepreneurial training program that year - she and Fleming began working together in 2013 as strategy partners in an ongoing revitalization goal for the neighborhood.

"St. Clair Superior is a really diverse neighborhood right on Lake Erie," she explains. Despite being on the water, it is not the kind of neighborhood that reflects the more privileged experiences that being "on the water" typically evokes.

"It was all industry to the north and the homes of those workers to the south. The neighborhood has been hard hit by the economic environment. A lot of areas look blighted. There are buildings with broken windows. This is the landscape that people who live here experience every day. So we straddle that in a neighborhood that has not been invested in but has the evidence of so many assets and resources and so much love and pride; that is all still there with the residents."

Supported by grants from ArtPlace and later the Kresge Foundation, the Upcycle Parts Shop opened in St. Clair Superior in 2014 as a creative reuse center that accepts in-kind donations of nontoxic materials to be transformed and made available to others, supporting sustainable practices and alternative uses for creative materials.

"We're seeing value in the waste stream and capturing it creatively while we make sure other people see the value in it too," says McGee. "Truly, we're igniting other people's creativity."

The community-based arts center connects neighbors to art, materials, and each other. Items like fabric yarn, paint brushes, glitter, costume jewelry, old skeleton keys, industrial scrap leather, small glass vases, wooden boxes, and any number of other donated items that can be repurposed into entirely new objects are available for purchase at a fraction of what similar materials would cost in craft stores. There is also an art bar located in the center of the shop, where people can hang out and make things.

<span class="content-image-text">Upcycle Parts Shop</span>Upcycle Parts Shop

"Sometimes we feel like we straddle craft and art, but we realize it's all about creativity and helping people tap into theirs," says McGee. "Our hope is just that we can create a new [means] of creativity around us."

Upcycle Parts Shop offers workshops in the store and is also available for creative engagement bookings throughout the community in places like parks and libraries. On Saturdays the studio is open for "all you can craft" for just $5, and there is also a free "craft of the day" in the art bar, when anyone can stop in and work on whatever projects are going on that day.

"This is to encourage people to upcycle with us and not just create a retail experience," McGee explains. "We wanted to have another way for people to engage here, especially for people who use this as a third space. The rules in the art bar are everyone introduces each other and it stays friendly – we don’t talk politics or religion – and keep general good practices."

Sometimes McGee or one of her coworkers will ask folks hanging out in the space if they can help out with a project to further promote a sense of purpose and belonging.

"You build community when you share something hands-on together," she says. "Sometimes the process is short-term and can have a lasting impact, leading people to find common ground and breaking barriers. Purpose and belonging are things we don't talk about or create enough of society-wide, but it's interesting to try to create that and support it as a byproduct of what we do."  

Breaking down cultural, socioeconomic, and racial/ethnic barriers is important to the ideological underpinnings of Upcycle Parts Shop. McGee says they are currently planning a "Crafting With Cops" workshop in partnership with the police department, the Boys and Girls Club, and Saint Luke's Foundation.

"We know that things happen when you make things by hand and you're not paying as much attention to what you're saying," McGee explains. "Saint Luke's is a big investor in strong communities, and this is another strategy to support that. The tension between the community and the police force is a really big issue in most communities, and this is one initiative to bridge that gap between the police and our residents."

At face value, Upcycle Parts Shop may be a "thrift store meets art supply shop," but really it is, in McGee's words, a creative placemaking strategy utilizing the principles of upcycling as a paradigm for community engagement and revitalization. 

Or, to put it more simply, it is a place where one man's trash truly becomes another man's treasure.