Maximizing Resources:
Creative Re-use and Re-purposing

I’m in the car with my dad on a hot South Texas summer day coming home from the store, and he spies a dresser on the curb in our neighborhood. It’s perfect, he says, grabbing the wheeled platform from the garage. Let’s go! He somehow convinced my brother and me to go on this mission – and to push the rolling dresser back to the house for him.

My dad grew up in communist Cuba, and finding useful things is his superpower. If it can be used, it will be. Twenty five years later, that dresser still lives with my parents as mom’s sewing cabinet – filled to the brim with fabric scraps from dad’s hemmed trousers, my childhood halloween costumes, and mom’s skilful DIY design projects. It was pretty much inevitable that I would grow up finding materials in unusual places and using them to make something better. We don’t ask “What IS that?,” but rather, “what WAS that” – because it could become anything.

Finding Physical Resources

When you think this way, seeking physical and human resources to build a business becomes a game of treasure hunting, and a puzzle to assemble.

From the beginning of developing Clever Octopus Creative Reuse Center, long before we had picked a building, we decided to design everything to carry our mission of creative reuse throughout the store. At the U of U surplus store, we found sturdy but gouged architecture tables and filled the cracks with colorful putty, making them beautiful while celebrating their years of hard work at the U. Carefully chosen treasures from neighborhood cleanups, Habitat for Humanity ReStore, KSL, and social media selling sites saved us thousands of dollars in furnishings while allowing us to build our creative space based on materials that were at the end of their original lifespan.

In a small way, because of our work, the idea of creative reuse is spreading throughout the valley, the art community, and the teaching community. At this point, we have daily donations coming in our door from individuals who have heard about our mission and want to give us their treasures.

Folks are revisiting their stashes in the yarn closet, sewing cabinet, wood shop, and kitchen to find materials that can be used for new purposes, and even if they’re not sure what to do with it, they know we do! Businesses call us with large donations of offcuts, scraps, and retired product – materials quite literally destined for the dumpster, the landfill, or the incinerator.

This didn’t happen overnight, however, and we didn’t do it alone.

Finding Human Resources

Finding people who believe in your dreams, connect with your vision, and help guide your business plan is what brings an idea to fruition.

In the early days, we had an idea of what today would look like, but we needed help organizing our thoughts and prioritizing steps to get here. We joined the startup boot camp incubator program at Sustainable Startups where Ian and Rob encouraged us to break down our business plan to create a Minimum Viable Product – the simplest and cheapest version of the project we wanted to create.

With access to a step van, we began as a mobile business and applied for our 501(c)3 status. At the same time, Eagle Scouts came to us looking to help. The scouts had experience in creating a neighborhood food drive and decided to run a materials drive within a mile of each of their houses – and each scout collected almost 1000 pounds of materials. By welcoming help from an unlikely source and allowing them to bring their skills to share, we quickly amassed a neatly organized storage unit full of materials for teaching and selling to the public.

Word of mouth, Facebook, and Instagram connected us with numerous people throughout the valley who were interested in our mission and assisting us with collecting supplies to fill our store with materials that just aren’t ready for the landfill.

Starting up a nonprofit is a long process that has taken patience, experienced advisors, attorneys, and tax accountants.
Mentors in the nonprofit sector have been key in helping us throughout the process, and they are thrilled to share their journeys with us. Our biggest challenge has been in educating the community about Creative Reuse, an idea that is successfully practiced throughout the U.S. but new to Utah. We are excited about what is to come. We have a very successful year behind us where we’ve been able to put all of our business “tentacles” in action successfully.

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Jen Lopez
Art Instructor
Clever Octopus Creative Reuse Center

Jen Lopez is the daughter of a Texas farm girl and a Cuban engineer, two cultures that appreciate a clever and creative approach to problem solving. Her art is a strange fusion of found objects, midcentury modern aesthetics, and intentionally lumpy ceramics. She enjoys combining natural and industrial materials in unexpected ways. Jen encourages her students to play with materials and enjoy the process of making art.