Artist turns litter collected on Miami University-Oxford campus into sculpture

Mar. 5—You can say, "one man's trash is another man's treasure" is especially true for Miami University junior Brian Vogt.

An art student, one of Vogt's most recent projects is a six-foot-tall humanoid sculpture with horns, eyes, arms, and one leg. The sculpture consists of a year-long collection of litter found throughout Miami University's campus. Titled "The Student Body," Vogt says he hopes his creation helps address awareness on the issue of littering.

"There's something very beautiful and very poetic about taking things that people dispose of," Vogt said, "and turning it into something new and beautiful that people can look at."

Through Miami University's individualized studies program, which allows students to "develop their own plan of study," Vogt said he plans to graduate with two majors. The first is in creative writing, and the second is a one-of-a-kind "found object art" major. Vogt's typical schedule includes typical art classes, a contemporary art forum, and an anthropology class dealing with global waste and reuse.

"It's a phenomenal class, it's all about the anthropology of trash and waste studies," Vogt said. "It's a very new field in anthropology."

Vogt said his first interaction with found object art came in 2020 when Miami University organized virtual classes during the COVID-19 pandemic. During that time, Vogt's great-uncle passed away. As Vogt's family was going through his beloved family member's house, Vogt said he felt guilty getting rid of his family member's items. Instead, he turned the belongings into a display the family could use to remember him.

"His whole life, he collected all this stuff, he was a hoarder, and so a lot of this stuff we were sorting into piles to sell or donate or throw away," Vogt said. "And so I took a lot of the stuff that we were going to throw away, and I turned it into a collage to memorialize him. It didn't seem right to just throw away all the stuff that he had collected."

Vogt's said his art style falls under the label of found object art: art created from everyday discarded objects. The art style is believed to have been first publicly featured by Pablo Picasso in 1912 in a painting titled "Still Life with Chair Caning."

"Found object art is basically art using objects, I mean it's kind of in the name," Vogt said. "I'm looking for objects that have had a second life of some sort, I'm talking trash, I'm talking antiques, things that had a purpose. They were used by someone, they were loved by someone, and they've been discarded."

As a sophomore in 2021, and finally on Miami's campus for the first time following the school going virtual in 2020, Vogt said he was shocked by the amount of litter he found on the campus.

"It was everywhere," Vogt said. "I kept thinking about all the promotional material that I had gotten from Miami, you know, like 'the most beautiful campus that ever there was' that quote from Robert Frost."

At first, Vogt said he would pick up litter, and dispose of it. But after a while, he felt there was a deeper issue.

"The more I talk to people, the more I recognize the fact that nobody really seemed to see the litter that was on the ground," Vogt said. "It's like they were blind to it."

Finally, Vogt had a plan. Instead of disposing of the trash, he would pick it up, and shove it in his backpack. When Vogt returned to his residence hall, he would take his collection of litter, and hide it away in the trash area of the hall. While it may have looked strange to many, Vogt said he saw it as an opportunity to talk to more people directly about the issue.

"I definitely had a lot of people stop and ask, 'What are you doing?'" Vogt said. "And I found a lot of interesting conversations with people about littering."

In the summer of 2022, Vogt was awarded a research grant through Miami's Western Program that allowed him to store his litter in Peabody Hall. Vogt said he worked over the summer to complete his sculpture, which later in the year was unveiled.

"The Student Body" is at Miami University's Western Center for Social Impact and Innovation in room 022 in Peabody Hall.

"And I call it the student body because I think this issue, all that litter on there, is very much a reflection of the entire campus culture," Vogt said. "In essence, every single person who's on this campus contributed or contributes to this issue in some way, whether directly leaving litter on the ground, or indirectly by being a part of the culture."

Although Vogt admitted it would be tough to top his 2-year-long litter project, he currently has other projects lined up, including tackling the "bag of bag phenomenon," in which one uses a plastic grocery bag to hold multiple other bags.

"So I was thinking a skeleton would be very interesting," Vogt said. "... And also, what exactly is going to happen to humanity, especially with climate change and all these environmental issues that are facing our society."

Brian Vogt's "The Student Body" features a collection of litter found throughout Miami University's campus.