Ben Cowden pushed a shopping cart toward a mound of garbage, mentally sifting through its heap of grimy contents. He dug into a pile, flipping an unrecognizable gizmo into his cart, smiling at the find.
With his castoff treasures rattling in the cart, he wheeled back toward his art studio in San Francisco's Recology Recycling Plant to continue work. "Really, the things I see the most coming through are televisions and microwaves," Cowden said. "And toilets for some reason -- a lot of toilets."
Cowden isn't interested in toilets or microwaves. But the motor from a copy machine, a bowling bowl, and an umbrella denuded of its fabric have all found their way into his mechanical art contraptions.
Back in the studio, he blows into the tip of what appears to be a black and red umbrella, launching it into a heaving motion reminiscent of breathing. In another device, the motor from a windshield wiper propels a pair of colorful paddles made from kite parts and plumbing pipe into a swimming motion.
"I'm surprised at the amount of perfect good things that come through," he said, gesturing toward a pile of miscellaneous items some might mistake for regular old garbage.
Cowden, along with fellow artist Ian Treasure, are the current artists in residence at the Recology plant.
In a tenure that began in February, the two artists are spending four months rummaging through the loads of trash, finding items to turn into art. The things they find inspire the art, they said.
"There's furniture, there's tools, there's sometimes money," said the appropriately named Treasure. "There's fixtures, fittings, woods -- virtually anything you can think of."
Among Treasure's mechanical pieces, was a motor-powered treadmill track striped to look like a road, with a small yellow taxi car running in place.
He called the piece, "Road to Nowhere." In another installation, Treasure was in the midst of installing motor-powered rulers on a dozen school desks that would slap the desks with a syncopated thwack.
"Like when I was in school when I was a kid," smiled Treasure. Somewhere, buried in the mounds of Recology's trash was an ecological message of some kind.
"Not that you have to make artwork out of all your trash, but there is a different way to look at these things," said Cowden. "Just because you don't want it doesn't mean it's completely useless."
The artists will continue salvaging, tinkering and pondering uses for things, their manufacturers never imagined.
It will all culminate in an art show in Recology's studios starting May 17.
Perhaps, guests will recognize their broken umbrella, or a failed kite, or a semi-functioning telescope - never imagining how imperfect things can sometimes make perfect art.