Niagara Region man turns trash left on Mount Everest into art

Floyd Elzinga has been making art since first grade, when he traded a drawing of an elephant for a wagon wheel lunch treat.

Since then, the world of art has become even more lucrative for him.

His latest project took him to Nepal, where he worked with a local organization to make art out of waste from Mount Everest.

It all started with a bad review. When he went to college to study graphic design, he was told his work was “primitive.”

“I was so offended. I just was like, ‘I want nothing to do with [the art] world.'”

A man, smiling at the camera holding a painting-like piece of a mountain range made with scrap metal.
Elzinga holds his piece, ‘Khumjung the Green Valley,’ outside of the Waste Lab at Sagarmatha Next in Nepal. (Submitted by Floyd Elzinga)

He then “turned the other direction” and tried to get into forestry school.

Even in horrible conditions, there is a potential for something good to happen.– Floyd Elzinga, artist

His love for nature now plays a central role in his art as he says he is “hugely inspired by the natural world.” 

He says “my art is my forestry … I grew up on a farm and now I make metal seeds and flowers and I’m growing a metal garden.”

A man working with metal with a Nepalese mountain range in the background.
The Waste Lab, in Nepal, is where artists go to make art from trash collected from Mt. Everest. (Submitted by Floyd Elzinga)

Working at one of the world’s highest art galleries 

Elzinga was invited to Nepal in an Instagram message by the Denali Foundation, an organization that supports artists.

The invitation made him “excited but skeptical.” 

He worked at Sagarmatha Next, which oversees the Denali Schmidt Art Gallery, to use garbage to create sculptures.

The five-week residency took him and his wife from their home in Beamsville, Ont., on an eight-day trip to the Everest region in Nepal, at 3,775 metres high.

A man reaching inside a tree stump made of scrap metal.
‘Hope’ is a 4.5-metre-tall sculpture meant to represent that ‘even in spite of horrible conditions, there is a potential for something good to happen,’ Elzinga says. (Sumbitted by Floyd Elzinga)

He made 25 pieces at his residency, including Hope, a tree stump with a sapling growing out of it.

The stump has a hole inside with various household appliances, including a stove, a kettle, a mailbox and more.

“My true inspiration [for the sculpture] is that even in horrible conditions, there is a potential for something good to happen.”

A tree made from scrap metal.
‘Grounded: The Weight of Flight’ includes parts from a Russian helicopter that crashed into the Mount Everest base camp in 2003. (Submitted by Floyd Elzinga)

For Grounded: The Weight of Flight, he made a tree with roots that intertwine with the rotor of a MI-17 Russian helicopter that crashed in Everest Base Camp on May 28, 2003, and said it represents the “literal and metaphorical weight [the rotor] has.”

“It’s just this beautiful tree is growing right through, oblivious to the nature of what has happened.”

Safeguarding for future generations

Elzinga told his story on social media through a photo of the waste, where people responded in anger, not knowing the garbage showed in pictures was actually brought there purposely to recycle. 

The trash is transported by porters and yaks, as the centre is inaccessible to vehicles, says Tommy Gustafsson, project director at the Himalayan Museum and Sustainable Park, which operates the Sagarmatha Next Centre.

“The bulk [of the garbage] is from the various mountain Base Camps … and from the +100 waste bins that are placed along the main hiking trails in the region,” he said.

A huge collection of garbage with Nepalese mountains as a backdrop.
The garbage used for the ‘Waste to Art’ exhibition came from various camps around Mount Everest. (Submitted by Floyd Elzinga)

The purpose of the Waste to Art project — which started in 2011 with Nepalese artists — is to make people see that waste is “a resource that can and should be reused,” said Gustafsson.

As a non-profit organization, the centre aims to support waste removal in the area and supports the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee.

He added the response from locals and foreigners alike has been “amazing and positive,” and he’s taken pleasure in seeing people discover art can be made from waste and realize the importance of preserving the environment “for future generations.”

A painting-like sculpture with layered metal to crate a landscape.
“Moonrise” is one of many landscape ‘paintings’ made by Floyd Elzinga from scrap metal. (Submitted by Floyd Elzinga)

David Fennell, a tourism studies professor at Brock University, said the project is “an excellent example of sustainable thinking.”

Fennell said the project could be seen as “a model” for other destinations.

“It is not just the physical presentation and aesthetic quality of these unique pieces,” he said. “But also the education and raising awareness of the human use of special places like the high-altitude regions of Nepal which are especially vulnerable to overuse.”

Garbage from Mount Everest hanging on European homes

Elzinga said 10 to 12 of his pieces have already made their way into homes around Europe, and some of them are displayed at the gallery.

He said one of the highlights of the residency was getting to chat with passersby.

“I guess seeing a western artist making a sculpture out of garbage is the last thing that they thought they were going to see on their Nepali trekking adventure.”

A group of people around a tree sculpture.
A group of tourists from the United Kingdom look at ‘Grounded’ and discuss the Russian helicopter’s rotor. (Submitted by Floyd Elzinga)

Elzinga has come a long way since that first bad review. He’s developed a thick skin.

He says “The best thing is to not take it personally, because once I make a work of art … that’s not necessarily about me anymore.”

A word of thanks, however, can go a long way.

“It still shocks me to … see people just weeping, crying [over my pieces],” he says.

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