Billy Blaise Dufala's usual destination for art supplies doesn't offer oil paints, archival paper, or sable brushes. But it does have new inventory daily - tons of it, brought in by the truckload from construction sites and 1-800-GOT-JUNK pickups.
As he wanders, wearing a hard hat and reflective vest, among mountains of wood pallets, concrete rubble, and twisted metal at Revolution Recovery in Tacony, he's intrigued by a tattered but, it turns out, functional patio umbrella, a perfectly good roll of roofing vinyl, and a stuffed likeness of a New Kids on the Block-era Jordan Knight, still in its box.
Uncovering potential within society's castoffs is at the core of the nonprofit Recycled Artist in Residency (RAIR), which formally launched this year as the region's only art studio in a recycling facility.
"The whole mission is to create awareness about sustainability through art," said Fern Gookin, Revolution Recovery's director of sustainability and RAIR's cofounder.
To that end, the company supplies artists with a studio space stocked with tools above its offices, and in-kind support in the form of all the trash they can pick. Visiting artists supply the vision for projects executed in the studio or installed temporarily in the dump, amid the piles of debris.
"We started with the idea of being able to do these big grand gestures and these projects that you can't really do on your own in your studio, whether because of finances or space," Dufala said. "Most artists that are emerging can't afford to buy 8,000 square feet of Tyvek; we're able to afford them that."
Even before the program existed, artists had been showing up at the yard in search of supplies. Dufala, in search of skyscraper glass for a studio mate, was one of them.
Owners Avi Golen and Jon Wybar had tried to accommodate them. But they didn't envision a formal program until Dufala and Gookin began pushing the idea, sending them information about a similar program run out of a San Francisco waste-management company, Recology.
By 2009, the owners agreed to host a program. It won instant support from the art community.
"All the artists and organizations we talked to were like, 'You can't just talk about this, or think about this. You have to do this,' " Gookin said.
As for any doubters within Revolution Recovery itself, Dufala - also known as part of the band Man Man and the art-making duo Dufala Brothers with his brother, Steven - had a way to win them over: He offered to make their Christmas card.
"Over the weekend I made a giant Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer on one of their excavators," he said. "When you add art into an industrial setting, it's an interesting thing: you break up the monotony of the workday, and people flip out."
Initially, RAIR was a series of pilot projects. By last fall, they were ready to put out a call for applications to launch the formal residency program in January. Artists can apply for standard residencies, which last up to three months, or "Biggie Shorties," which are large-scale projects completed in a short period of time. (A call for 2015 applicants is open until Dec. 7; details are at RAIRphilly.org).
The short-term projects often are completed in a 36-hour scramble while the dump isn't in use, then photographed and demolished before Revolution Recovery's workers return on Monday morning. What isn't saved rejoins the stream of about 300 tons of debris that comes through each day, 80 percent of which is recycled.
"The emphasis is working toward a document, so at the end that project and all the material it's comprised of goes back into the waste stream," said Dufala, who acts as artists' guide to the dump, and, often, as a collaborator. "They can think as big as they want, and it's our job to help produce that."
Previous works have included an installation of graceful Tyvek sails by Lauren Ruth, an amphitheater of bales of compressed metal by Dufala and Mary Ellen Carroll, and monumental "icebergs" of rubble by Matt Ruby and Joanie Turbek.
During longer residencies, artists can immerse themselves in the daily rhythms of the dump.
"It almost has a natural cycle to it, trucks coming in and out, making these mountains of materials," said Kaitlin Pomerantz, who was there this summer with her collaborator, John Broderick Heron. "It's like you're watching some perverse nature video. A lot of the work which we ended up making was reflecting on that part of the experience."
They salvaged papers, fibers, and industrial netting from the waste stream to make paper, and even made their own papermaking tools from lumber and window screens. Then, they took the sheets to the Delaware River nearby to pull prints from the surface slick, creating a series of pollution prints. The works will be on view starting Nov. 3 at C.R. Ettinger Studio on South Street.
Matt Neff, an art professor at the University of Pennsylvania who's currently working at RAIR, arrived with a more open-ended project: "My proposal was . . . to see what comes in and react to the waste stream." He's made sculptures, photographs, and prints using found objects, and is setting up a printing studio for future artists to use there. He's been encouraging his students to apply.
"I have a lot of former students who are applying, people who've decided since graduating with their MFA to stay in Philly, and are looking for reasons to stay here," he said. "Things like this residency give people a reason to stick around."
Making sure RAIR itself will stick around is another matter. Revolution Recovery supports it by commissioning projects like the annual holiday card and its new Dumpster Doubletake campaign that will plant artist-painted Dumpsters around town. They're starting fund-raising efforts, with the goal of hiring a full-time manager. (Dufala and Gookin are volunteers.)
Neff hopes to stay involved. He said working amid the daily flow of waste has been a transformative experience.
"I feel like my work is changing even just being there," he said. "Anytime you can go as an artist to a space and have that change your work, it's pretty amazing."