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Swept Away: The Art of Dust, Dirt and Ash

Apr 5, 2012

by Chappell Ellison handmade and vintage goods

When it comes to keeping a home, we go to great lengths to expunge filth. We grab brooms and dustpans to sweep dirt out. When rugs collect dust, they are beaten clean. A bouquet of feathers attached to a plastic handle dislodges the film that collects on the edges of picture frames. Without a thought, we banish dirt from our homes, believing the words of the traditional housekeeping mantra: “Cleanliness is next to godliness.”

Cleanliness has come to reflect perfection in the individual. We forget that the dust in our homes contains fragments of our DNA, skin and hair. This human connection with dirt is explored in a Swept Away: Dust, Ashes and Dirt in Contemporary Art, a new exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City. Dust, ashes, smoke and dirt comprise the mediums found in the exhibition, uninvited elements that are rejected from our homes, despite bearing witness to our personal histories and environs. The stuff that makes its way to the dustpan is reconstituted into surprisingly intimate works that challenge our notions of beauty, time and, of course, cleanliness.

Chappell Ellison

Julie Parker, Ritual Accumulations, 2011-2012

Multimedia artist Julie Parker finds herself inexplicably compelled by the detritus produced through human activity. Dust and hair are her favorite mediums, appearing often in her work. “Dust contains particles of our bodies. We leave some of it wherever we go… These indexical marks in the dust show the history of our movements,” says Parker. For her piece Ritual Accumulations, Parker gathered dryer lint from friends, family and acquaintances over several years, using the fibers to create a mosaic-like quilt. From afar, the quilt looks like it is crafted from traditional fabric, yet close inspection reveals the unmistakable texture of dryer lint, with bits of threads and flecks of paper caught in the soft, wooly squares. For Parker, the quilt is more than just creative repurposing, it’s an uncomfortable intimate artifact. “In addition to dust and hair, the lint from a clothes dryer contains fragments of cloth that have been in contact with our bodies.” Just underneath the quilt, where the wall meets the museum floor, a small pile of debris indicates material’s dirty origins.

Chappell Ellison

Catherine Bertola, Unfurling Splendor (Adaptation IV), 2012

Another work that plays with perspective is Catherine Bertola’s Unfurling Splendor (Adaptation IV). From a distance, it resembles a refined wallpaper pattern. The artist applied PVC glue to the walls of the gallery (presumably with the help of a stencil), then covered the wet glue with debris from the museum’s floor. A closer look at Bertola’s installation might make patrons squeamish — plenty of human hair is trapped and among the dust and dried glue. But the connection to filth is beautifully balanced by the richly decorative pattern, suitable for the likes of Louis XIV. “The choice of historic designs establishes an intimate domesticity to these uninhabited spaces, allowing the past to pervade the present with the transient traces and debris of human existence,” says Bertola.

While many artists in the exhibition dealt with the dirt that accumulates in our homes, Alexandre Orion addresses the filth that pervades the streets of crowded urban environments. In a 3-minute video entitled Ossário (see above), Orion approaches the underpass between Avenida Europa and Avenida Cidale Jardim in São Paulo, where a narrow catwalk divides the car traffic from a metal, grate-covered wall. In a sort of reverse-graffiti method, Orion uses a rag to remove the black soot caked onto the grate, revealing the clean white surface of the metal. Through selective removal, the artist creates a mural of gleaming white skulls that overlook the cars whizzing by. “It quietly criticizes our omission, our comfortable acceptance of pollution,” explains the artist’s statement. By the end of the video, Orion reveals São Paulo’s surprising reaction to his mural.

The dust bunny under your bed may be an unpleasant reminder of your negligent housekeeping, but within that cloudlike puff is a microcosm of daily life, an accumulated mass of genetic material and personal habit. While dirt may not belong in the home, as an artistic medium it reveals thought-provoking social complexities that challenge preconceived notions about the value of cleanliness.

Art Category

3 Featured Comments

  • HoneysuckleLane

    Lana Manis from HoneysuckleLane said 8 years ago Featured

    One man's trash, or dirt in this instance, is another man's treasure! In reference to Catherine Bertola’s Unfurling Splendor (Adaptation IV), I never could have imagined that dust and dirt could be so lovely... from afar. However, I think I'll continue my regular cleaning routine at home. I already have enough art hobbies! :)

  • guziks

    Stephanie from Phylogeny said 8 years ago Featured

    This kind of makes my skin crawl just a little bit, but it's fascinating that artists are tackling such projects. "A microcosm of daily life," the perfect description of my dust bunnies... and I have plenty of them with which I happily co-habitate.

  • slathered

    Sharon Moores from slathered said 8 years ago Featured

    It's easy to be disgusted by this, but many of us peddle recycled goods, some of which might gross people out (personally, vintage -- a.k.a. used! -- shoes bother me). I'm fascinated by "Ritual Accumulations." I love the colored layers my dryer's lint trap accumulates, but it never dawned on me to make something out of it. Thanks for the food for thought!


  • HoneysuckleLane

    Lana Manis from HoneysuckleLane said 8 years ago Featured

    One man's trash, or dirt in this instance, is another man's treasure! In reference to Catherine Bertola’s Unfurling Splendor (Adaptation IV), I never could have imagined that dust and dirt could be so lovely... from afar. However, I think I'll continue my regular cleaning routine at home. I already have enough art hobbies! :)

  • MyHomemadeHome

    Susannah from HandmadeBySusannah said 8 years ago

    after all from dust , Adam came!

  • emmashepard

    Emma Shepard from SewWonderfullyMade6 said 8 years ago

    Interesting :)

  • AtomicAttic

    Miles and Aimee Harrison from AtomicAttic said 8 years ago

    Wow, actually very cool!

  • KathyGDesigns

    Kathy G from KathyGDesigns said 8 years ago

    Interesting read! Isn't it amazing what a creative mind will come up with!

  • kh1467

    Kelly from KikuPaper said 8 years ago

    A traditionalist at heart, I'll stick to paintings with oil paint, prints with ink, drawings with pencil...

  • HouseOfMoss

    Alison Comfort from HouseOfMoss said 8 years ago

    It's both disturbing and comforting to know that much of our environment is made up of the very stuff that we are.

  • silverlily786

    Fatema from SilverLilyJewelry said 8 years ago

    I don't think I can look at dust the same again!,it truely blow's my mind to see how other's use creativity in such mindblowing way's.

  • JoyousCrafts

    Heather Salzman from JoyousCrafts said 8 years ago

    Wow! What will they think of next!? LOL!

  • guziks

    Stephanie from Phylogeny said 8 years ago Featured

    This kind of makes my skin crawl just a little bit, but it's fascinating that artists are tackling such projects. "A microcosm of daily life," the perfect description of my dust bunnies... and I have plenty of them with which I happily co-habitate.

  • tomsgrossmami

    Tom's Grossmami from tomsgrossmami said 8 years ago


  • KickStandProductions

    Diane from KickStandProductions said 8 years ago

    Orion's work (actual work) is stunning. Great idea.

  • Made2Impress

    Made2Impress from Made2Impress said 8 years ago

    Beautiful video mural. It should have been preserved, at least, for a while.

  • FreakyPeas

    FreakyPeas from FreakyPeas said 8 years ago

    too bad it took all that work just to get the tunnel cleaned. very impressive. the end with the bubbles going down...little skeletons...

  • Iammie

    iammie from iammie said 8 years ago


  • accentonvintage

    accentonvintage from accentonvintage said 8 years ago

    Dust may be made into art, but I don't want to glorify dust!

  • ArigigiArt

    Gina from ArigigiArt said 8 years ago


  • HealthyReflections

    Christine Kramer from HealthyReflections said 8 years ago

    An interesting feature. I think the video was really nicely done.

  • walkonthemoon

    Regina McGearty from walkonthemoon said 8 years ago

    i always KNEW there was art to be had from dryer lint!

  • LiliDMagpieCreations

    Lisa Giddings from LiliDMagpieCreations said 8 years ago

    A thought provoking article with a hidden gem...Alexandre Orion's Ossário is a Must See so please take the time to check out the short video!

  • GracefullyGirly

    Kimberlee from GracefullyGirly said 8 years ago

    I've seen other artists use dirt and ash to create incredible works of intricate art and it never ceases to boggle my mind! I think I'll stick to more traditional mediums. I appreciate these artists' messages, but I have to admit, I don't have quite so clever a message. I just like to make pretty things for people to wear to make them feel special. I'll leave the dryer lint and vacuum contents in my trash. : )

  • VintageMarketPlace

    VintageMarketPlace from VintageMarketPlace said 8 years ago

    whoa, gives us something to think about.

  • ezliving

    ezliving from ezliving said 8 years ago

    Ok that's cool!!

  • VoleedeMoineaux

    Hillary De Moineaux from VoleedeMoineaux said 8 years ago

    Frekin awsome!

  • CereusArt

    Dana from CereusArt said 8 years ago


  • minipotterybyanita from potterybyAnita said 8 years ago

    Wow!! Just goes to show what a little IMAGINATION & an Open Mind can accomplish! Wow! ♥

  • themefragrance

    Theme Fragrance from themefragrance said 8 years ago

    the opening image is haunting. i live in new york and it reminds me of 9/11 aftermath-the street. objects covered in a strange dust.

  • ShoeClipsOnly

    kathy johnson from ShoeClipsOnly said 8 years ago

    Intersting - but with all the feathers flying around at my house from my studio everytime I walk out the door - I need to vaccum every day, along with the feathers, the dust and dirt goes into the vaccum, never to be seen again, a lost work of art? I have too many hobbies but lint collection to make art sounds amazing, what an imagination! I would love to see a sculpture made out of lint (Statue of Liberty)??

  • DeathByVintage

    Jypyse from DeathByVintage said 8 years ago

    The dryer lint is the best. I too while studying Fiber Design created a dryer lint quilt. I must say that the random colors found in the community dryer always posed a challenge as to the aesthetic quality of my quilt. The guys who did laundry never sorted their colors which was always a hoot to collect and incorporate! Great post!

  • jmayoriginals

    jean from jmayoriginals said 8 years ago

    interesting! it reminds me of the documentary "Waste Land" where artist Vik Muniz returns to his native Brazil and makes works of art from the garbage picked out of a Rio landfill. it's a great film!

  • SoliDeoGloriaSDG

    Thea from SoliDeoGloriaSDG said 8 years ago

    Fascinating article! I am currently offering a 35% discount on all my original paintings - for a limited time only! Enjoy!

  • rebourne

    Marni from rebourne said 8 years ago

    So now I can tell my husband that the dirt is art?! Great article. I always felt that a 'dirty' home was a home where love flourished. I know that when I focus too much on keeping a clean house, I turn into Mean Mommy.

  • myvintagecrush

    Kathleen from myvintagecrush said 8 years ago

    hmmmm... dusty.

  • bstudio

    Bren from bstudio said 8 years ago

    Art is only limited by our imagination, what a fascinating take on it!

  • KaiceJoy

    Kirsti Joy from KaiceJoy said 8 years ago

    Very interesting!

  • AllysAntiques

    Alexandra Domeracki from AllysAntiques said 8 years ago

    Great article! Thanks for sharing ;-)

  • lakeandsea

    GJ Burton said 8 years ago

    I have lots of dust, pet hair fiber, clothes dryer material. We live in a mobile home which has duct work problems and our cat uses one of the floor vents for his personal exit/entrance. If you ever want any fibers, I'd be happy to send you some of ours. I have to throw anything away. As soon as we get the duct work fixed, the problem may cease and we'll have to find another cat door for out very independent cat who will be very upset when his secret door is closed off.

  • thevicagirl

    VaLon Frandsen from thevicagirl said 8 years ago

    So interesting. It is true that you can find beauty anywhere. This is the perfect example of it. The quilt is a little much, but the wall design, brillant!

  • 27thEmpireGallery

    Jesus C. from 27thEmpireGallery said 8 years ago

    Awsome ideas!

  • marieowltoinette

    Marie Owltoinette from marieowltoinette said 8 years ago

    Wow...that's incredible! I can't believe the "quilt" is made from dryer lint!

  • misponko

    Liudmila Rosario Ponko from PonkoWorld said 8 years ago

    wow! crazy ideas!

  • WingedWorld

    Vickie Moore from WingedWorld said 8 years ago

    What a fascinating article about artists using dirt, human hair and even accumulated grime and vehicle emissions in a tunnel to create art. The video with the article was well worth watching. It's ironic to think that authorities would rather wash away the artistic graffiti — made by strategically wiping away grime — than let it remain for people to view and ponder. It was sad to see the pollutant-filled water from the hose-down flowing into a storm drain, which very likely empties into a river.

  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat from mazedasastoat said 8 years ago

    OK, now this is really disgusting. Dryer lint I don't have a problem with, but surely it must be against health & safety laws to sweep the dirt off the floor of a public building to spread it on the walls? I'm not squeamish about my own dirt, I just don't want to get too close to someone else's. Despite this glorification of dirt, I bet the artists wear protective gloves... so they don't love it THAT much do they?

  • lifemeetsart

    Jolynn from lifemeetsart said 8 years ago

    They can come to my house and clean when ever they need more of their prefered medium!

  • belleterre

    Julia and Wayne from WhisperingWillowSoap said 8 years ago

    One of the redeeming qualities of humanity is our ability to create art from anything!

  • gilstrapdesigns

    Debra Gilstrap from gilstrapdesigns said 8 years ago

    Who would have though.

  • SobasPhotos

    Sasha Sobaszkiewicz Griner from SobasPhotos said 8 years ago

    The reverse graffiti is my absolute favorite. I consider most graffiti to be art. There are some beautiful boxcars riding the rails out there.

  • zenceramics

    Elena Miller from ZenCeramics said 8 years ago

    Very very interesting and unusual but very unhealthy. I use dirt in a form of clay and ash for glazes to create my ceramic forms which is a more traditional medium. I do have a lot of dust in my studio and have to clean it all the time otherwise it can be extremely unhealthy for your lungs. Your post are always very intriguing. I always look forward to see your blogs. Thank you again.

  • slathered

    Sharon Moores from slathered said 8 years ago Featured

    It's easy to be disgusted by this, but many of us peddle recycled goods, some of which might gross people out (personally, vintage -- a.k.a. used! -- shoes bother me). I'm fascinated by "Ritual Accumulations." I love the colored layers my dryer's lint trap accumulates, but it never dawned on me to make something out of it. Thanks for the food for thought!

  • ErikaPrice

    Erika from ErikaPrice said 8 years ago

    Wow - I struggle to be a domestic goddess - maybe the solution is to create something out of the dust rather than to spend time trying to sweep it all away!

  • lovelyfeverboutique

    Jessica from LovelyFever said 8 years ago

    I was very surprised that these pieces of art were actually created from dirt, debris and dryer lint. This takes the concept of turning trash to treasure to a whole new level. I like how these artists are seeing the poetry in dust, as little remnants of ourselves left behind. :)

  • lovesexton

    Tokara from lovesexton said 8 years ago

    WOW slightly grosses me out but it is BEAUTIFUL!!! great post!

  • SusiesBoutiqueTLC

    SusiesBoutiqueTLC from SusiesBoutiqueTLC said 8 years ago

    Great article. :)

  • IrishGoesCoastal

    Irish from IrishGoesCoastal said 8 years ago

    Beautiful filth :-). But, filth, nonetheless. I'll keep my distance from these "uncomfortable" beauties, I think. However, if anyone ever wants to come and sweep up detritus (dander, hair, feather dust, bits of shed snakeskin) from our pet-filled home, please feel free to bring your vacuum cleaner or dustpan along and collect as much of it as you'd like! Neat article. Made me think. Ouch! :-)

  • HelloMountains

    Audrey from HelloMountains said 8 years ago


  • gypsumrose

    Levi Emerson from gypsumrose said 8 years ago

    dust drives my allergies insane

  • SyleraCreations

    Arelys Fernandez from SyleraCreations said 8 years ago

    Interesting! I love the Reverse Graffiti! Never knew about until now! Thanks!

  • mozellemetana

    Lisa from MozelleMetana said 8 years ago

    Loved this show! Just saw it last week.

  • OnlyOriginalsByAJ

    AJ Marsden from OnlyOriginalsByAJ said 8 years ago

    Interesting. I'm not sure if I would do this, but to each his own!

  • auntjanecan

    Jane Priser from JanePriserArts said 8 years ago

    Interesting and thought provoking. Bring on the dryer lint!

  • BanglewoodSupplies

    BanglewoodSupplies from BanglewoodSupplies said 8 years ago

    Very interesting story.

  • SisterMaryTopiary

    SisterMaryTopiary from SisterMaryTopiary said 8 years ago

    Remember, Man, that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.

  • imperfectbydaisey

    Daisey from imperfectbydaisey said 8 years ago

    Art is everywhere!!

  • dottywalker

    Dotty Walker from SewThoughtfulBlanket said 8 years ago

    Where do people come up with these ideas? So very interesting!

  • handsinknead77

    Rita Smith said 8 years ago

    I truly love the concept but having dirt art in my home kinda creeps me out. However, applying the wet rag idea on my dirty car and making art.....I can deal with that.....instead of the ever popular "Wash Me". Alexandre Orion's concept is brilliant. I don't see why they had to destroy his art work....I mean....he did clean part of it. I wonder what the guy who was washing Orion's art was thinking when he was hosing it down. Hm.

  • EnterpriseAmericana

    Enterprise Americana from EnterpriseAmericana said 8 years ago

    Now THAT was interesting.

  • ZIPPERjewelry

    Phuong Quynh from SakuraZIPPERjewelry said 8 years ago

    The Art of Dust, Dirt and Ash !!!!! Ideas in non-expecting place. Love this.

  • uniquefabricgifts

    Unique Fabric Gifts from uniquefabricgifts said 8 years ago

    Fascinating and interesting article!

  • pinksnakejewelry

    pinksnakejewelry from pinksnakejewelry said 8 years ago

    Great Post!! Thought Provoking Works!!

  • yqsl66

    Ada Ada from idajewelry66 said 8 years ago

    wow!interesting! crazy ideas!

  • vartusvaradian1

    Vartus Varadian from Vartus said 8 years ago

    I actually went to the museum and saw the whole exhibit. I Thought it was fascinating!

  • BlueMoonLights

    Alexandra Simons from BlueMoonLights said 8 years ago

    Interesting ideas! Thanks for the post!

  • AntoinettesWhims

    Antoinette from AntoinettesWhims said 8 years ago

    Feel free to come to my house and gather materials for this kind of art ~ I have dust bunnies up for adoption.

  • laTeefahDoLLs1898

    LaTeeFah from laTeefahDoLLs1898 said 8 years ago

    ...i need OriOn to beautify tHe dust in my poTTery studio...

  • pact

    Patricia from pact said 8 years ago

    Very interesting indeed!

  • anotherghostquilts

    Nancy from anotherghostquilts said 8 years ago

    Oh, the mysteries of the "art" world. Drier lint would surely be cheaper than designer fabric ( at ten dollars a yard) in my quilts, though. Um, no thanks... Very interesting, for sure!

  • janicewd

    janicewd from janicewd said 8 years ago

    Very different.

  • Parachute425

    Terry from Parachute425 said 8 years ago

    Love the reverse-graffiti method! My family does this by writing "dust me" on our furniture. I say if you're going to write in my dust, please don't date it. I hate to dust. The problem is after you've dusted you just have to turn around and do it again in six months.

  • TheStitchAndFold

    Stitch from TheStitchAndFold said 8 years ago

    Amazing - I like the design of Unfurling Splendour, and the reverse-graffiti!

  • fantasygarden

    Anna Kikute from fantasygarden said 8 years ago

    that was so interesting article:)

  • KKSimpleRegalJewelry

    Krista from TheBeadtriss said 8 years ago

    Interesting! I would rather have a house that looks warm and like people actually live in it, and it not be sparkling clean.... then a sterile cold house. :} ~KK~

  • KRUSTYstuff

    Kristy Overman from KRUSTYstuff said 8 years ago

    Orion's video was amazing. I wonder if he was amused at the outcome.

  • mythunderstood

    mythunderstood from mythunderstood said 8 years ago

    This is brilliant - thanks very much for the post! Love the wallpaper!

  • BestArtStudios2

    Mike & Jaime Best from BestArtStudios2 said 8 years ago

    well the video was cool

  • DGEnterprises

    Therese Magnani from DGEnterprises said 8 years ago

    I still have a small bowl I made from dryer lint years ago. My husband and I used it to store coins in it for the laundromat. It grossed out more than one person, which I always thought was odd, given how much of that debris is always around us and loose. At least my bowl had rendered the lint inert.


    VINTAGE NOW from ESTATENOW said 8 years ago

    Unique stuff..

  • montanagirl

    Carmen from MontanaGirl said 8 years ago

    Very interesting. For some reason I was reminded of the potters who were experimenting with the ash from Mount St Helens in 1980. Maybe because it was everywhere?

  • TresChicNmodern

    TresChicNmodern from TresChicNmodern said 8 years ago

    JUST BEAUTIFUL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! LOVE THE ARTICLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • mediumstomasses

    Sarah from mediumstomasses said 8 years ago

    Thanks for the great article- wish I was in NYC to see in person!

  • shreyasi22sharma

    Shreyasi Sharma from ShreyasiSharma said 8 years ago


  • 5gardenias

    kathi roussel from 5gardenias said 8 years ago

    Wenda Gu has been making amazing art with human hair for quite some time--check him out wonderful post-- thanks!

  • LittleWrenPottery

    Victoria Baker from LittleWrenPottery said 8 years ago

    Dust and dirt are really quite intimate I've often thought about the fact that we leave a little of ourselves everwhere we go. Its kinda gross too! Sometimes I just feel like I live in dust with all the pottery in our house!

  • nursdurkin2449

    Paula Bush from PersnickityPumpkin said 8 years ago

    love the reverse graffiti...the music was really good, too

  • janessarobbins

    Janessa Robbins from AnarasCorner said 8 years ago

    It would take a lot of creativity to create something that is normally repulsive (I hate dust and dirt and so does my allergies) and make it into something as beautiful as these images. I love the imagination of contemporary artists.

  • rietakeda

    Rie Takeda from NeoJaponismAtelier said 8 years ago

    Creative and yet organic!! All great for nature!! A wonderful eco-idea**

  • junkyardiva

    junkyardiva from junkyardiva said 8 years ago

    This photograph really caught my......mostly because it is grey, which is my favourite colour!

  • serendipitychild

    Helen Jackson from serendipitychild said 8 years ago

    This article reminds me of an exhibition I saw in Oxford, it was a museum of detritus that was discovered under the floorboards of the museum during a renovation. It showed the history of the last 100 years of the building, for example, one summer there must have been a cherry seller outside the museum because there was a layer of cherry pips in the dust under the floorboards, also things like little notes and shopping lists, mouse bones and jewellery that must have fallen through the gaps.

  • estxy76

    Esther Carrera from estxy76 said 8 years ago

    Esto si que es fascinante. Tengo tanta tierra acumulada en mi casa a cual paso horas tratando de desaserme de ella y no lo logro. Ahora tendré excusa para usar eso en una manera buena para mi misma y para el environment alrededor de mi. Tienen muy buena idea en la perspectiva de la vida que tenemos, como cada cosa en este mundo dicho nuestro tiene un propósito , y alomejor hemos encontrado el propósito de la historia de nuestros cuerpos dejadas en un lote de basura por la nada. :)

  • BagheadDesigns

    BagheadDesigns said 8 years ago

    Well, at least he got them to clean the damn underpass. Mission accomplished.

  • DebbieDolls

    Debbie Campbell from YarnDeBelles said 8 years ago

    Interesting way of recycling and of elevating the status of dust.

  • pinkpoppies1991

    Pink Poppies from pinkpoppies1991 said 8 years ago

    Interesting article!

  • NewStArtDesigns

    Debbie Robertson from NewStArtDesigns said 8 years ago

    Loved the article. Very creative.

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