You don’t know dedication until you have tried to make toilet paper rolls "cool." Mary Cantu has been clutching the cardboard and preaching its potential for three years.
An advocate for the green movement, Cantu insists that beauty is in the hands of the creator – that "trash" is a matter of perception.
She defaults to her favorite quote as a metaphor for her mission: “Trash is the failure of imagination.” As a certified "Master Reuser" of the Reuse Alliance – the first person in San Antonio to earn this designation – Cantu is asking us to re-imagine what we know as disposable and rethink its purpose.
Spare Parts is Cantu’s recently established organization and her platform for spreading her vision. The organization aims to provide a steady supply of materials to local artists that otherwise would be thrown away. Spare Parts already has gained national attention from New York to Hawaii and was selected as the spotlighted organization to represent Texas in a National Reuse Documentary.
The idea was derived from a trip to Plastic Supply San Antonio in 2010. Cantu was a part of an arts education advocacy program with no money for supplies. She was told that Plastic Supply SA donated supplies to teachers, so Cantu sped over to the warehouse faster than you can say recycle. As she drove away with a car full of artistic goodies, she vowed to make this possible to the arts community on a larger scale.
On Saturday, Nov. 16, Providence Catholic School will host the inaugural fundraiser to aid in the expansion of Spare Parts. The event, titled V.I.P. (Very Important Party), will be held from 6-8 p.m. at the Najim Campus Center (1215 N. St. Mary's St.).
Food, drinks, a silent auction and entertainment will be provided, thanks to donations by local businesses and individuals. Tickets to the event are $40 and may be purchased online through www.sparepartstudio.org.
Cantu began collecting materials from various businesses and quickly had more than 90 teachers signed up from almost every school district in San Antonio.
PreK-12 grade teachers and the public celebrated Spare Parts’ third annual Free Fine Arts Fair in July by taking stuff. A lot of stuff. Teachers came to the Wonderland of the Americas, with trash bags, red wagons and the spirits of treasure hunters.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Monica Brooks, an art teacher at Longfellow Middle School. “I should have brought a wheelbarrow.”
Brooks walked away with limbs occupied to their capacity, carrying materials her students would never have had access to otherwise.
Brooks smiled with pride as she showed me photos of projects her students had completed with Spare Parts materials. One project utilized bottle caps while another featured tiles as bases on which students created large sculptures.
“Without realizing these projects were bringing the school together, they did." Brooks said. "Everyone was able to use the materials in a different way and it became a lesson in creativity and usability.”
Brooks has 180 students. Without Spare Parts, she said, she would have been forced to choose only one class or two in which the students could have participated in the projects.
Cantu shakes her head at the very notion of educational cut backs, “It is absolutely unacceptable that teachers have to supplement their curriculum or pay for supplies themselves. I will not watch students suffer because of budget cuts to arts programs. It won’t happen.”
Cantu is not simply a supplier.
“Each donation is love and we want to give you as much as we can,” Cantu said.
She is currently developing workshops to teach students how to reuse materials. A 25-page lesson plan was sent to teachers in advance of the drive that focused on the materials Spare Parts had collected.
Another creative solution to funding issues is Cantu’s mini-museums. When schools cannot afford to go on field trips, Spare Parts provides tiny gallery works displayed on the inside of recycled binders. The binders are set up in lunch rooms or libraries and the students tour around them as if they were within the halls of the San Antonio Museum of Art. The students are then asked to create their own small artworks of awesome.
Cantu’s dream is to have a space for Spare Parts to call home.
“Think about how amazing it would be to have a bus in which we could drive to different locations and collect materials. We could go to schools and businesses and make it easier for them to access all we have to offer.”
Brooks notes that storage is an issue currently. She has to hoard all the materials from the once-a-year event in her garage. A central storage space would make it much easier for these teachers to plan, collect and stockpile.
Spare Parts is presently a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization. They also have lofty goals to eventually become their own nonprofit.
“This summer we exceeded our resources as a volunteer project and the time has come to transform spare parts into a full-time organization, serving our community year round through more environmentally-smart art making and creative reuse,” Cantu said.
Mary Cantu exhales all things good in this world. She is dedicated to cultural and environmental sustainability, affordability and accessibility to the arts, education and creativity. Speaking with her for more than a few minutes can cause any individual to feel as though they too can make a difference.
Support of the arts in our community appears to be on the rise as seen in the new bachelor of fine arts degree offered through Southwest School of Art and increased attendance at events such as First Friday and Second Saturday. That being said, however, the community cannot neglect the grassroots efforts of organizations such as Spare Parts that are cultivating our young artists by eliminating colossal barriers like the cost of supplies.
Melanie Robinson graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English with a concentration in professional writing and a minor in anthropology from the University of Texas at San Antonio in December 2011. Her current marketing position at the local nonprofit organization ARTS San Antonio has afforded her the opportunity to further explore her love of the arts. She now spends her nights among local musicians, artists and poets – finding beauty in self-expression. You can contact Melanie through her Facebook.