Waste Not, Want Art? The Clever Octopus Provides Sustainable Art Materials for All


By Palak Jayswal, Arts Editor


In Murray, between a bicycle shop and a post office, resides a quirky little arts and crafts shop. A single step inside the shop transports visitors to an almost hoarder-like environment. Yet, for the well-trained artistic eye, this place is a gold mine of creativity. Every crevice of the shop is filled with reusable art supplies, from paintbrushes and fabrics to virtually everything in between. Clever Octopus Creative Reuse Center is a hidden safe haven for artists of all kinds and it is made available to artists of any skill level. As the only creative thrift store in Utah, Clever Octopus and its staff are committed to their mission of “fostering creativity and environmental awareness through art, science, technology, engineering and math.”


The History 

The nonprofit organization was born right here on campus at the University of Utah when co-founders Sheri Gibb and Jen Lopez met during a ceramics class. The artists had two distinct ideas in mind: Gibb wanted to provide art supplies for teachers and Lopez wanted to open a creative reuse center in Utah. Their dreams came together in 2016 when Clever Octopus received its nonprofit status, and a little over a year later, they were able to open their shop. Now, there are three different branches to Clever Octopus: the reuse center, a warehouse and the Octopod — a mobile outreach vehicle.

Creative reuse centers are scattered all across the United States, but here in Utah, this sole organization tackles a lot. Lin-hsiu Huang, program coordinator at Clever Octopus, said, “The concept of creative reuse is not new — basically it means you’re diverting waste. Instead of a thrift store, we serve a very different niche than other stores. We take a lot of items that other thrift stores wouldn’t accept and we also have the component of education embedded with our mission.” While some reuse centers cater to specific audiences like teachers or only focus on one component like education, Clever Octopus champions everything. “It’s very multi-faceted. We target a lot with art education as well as environmental stewardship because we’re diverting waste at the same time as trying to teach people to think creatively,” Huang said. 

The name of the organization is as peculiar and fantastic as the shop, and of course, there’s a significance behind it. Kacy Huston, the outreach coordinator at Clever Octopus, said the origin also goes with the organization’s mission. “Octopuses are really resourceful. They can change their skin color to blend in with their surroundings. They can use different debris in the ocean as shelter. We’re trying to be clever octopuses, hereby being resourceful with what we already have.”


How it Works

Donations of craft supplies to the organization come from two different places. Larger loads come from big companies such as 3form and local event venues, such as the Salt Palace. These partners share materials with Clever Octopus, which then decides what they can use depending on what they have room for and how vital or innovative a supply is. Individual donations provide a second source of materials. Every week, from Wednesday to Saturday, patrons can stop by and bring donations of supplies that are stored in the donation closet of the shop. 

While there’s a list of donation items on the website, the shop accepts just about everything that isn’t too big or toxic. What they can’t fit into their tiny shop, they send over to their warehouse location in South Salt Lake. Patrons can find just about anything in the shop, including traditional art supplies like acrylic paint and more innovative items like hardware. Employees at the shop are skilled in creating a work of art out of what seems like nothing. Huang said, “I think our biggest thing is inspiring people to rethink what they think of as waste. What we understand as waste in our society is very problematic, so we try to encourage people to think more about what they’re consuming.”

Putting “Waste” to Use in the Community

Clever Octopus doesn’t waste time when it comes to reaching out to the broader community. Among numerous outreach projects they take on, there’s a wide range of classes for young children and adults such as printmaking, weaving, embroidery and more. Mini-grants of $50 worth of merchandise from the shop are awarded to organizations and schools every quarter. When prices in the shop are 50-90% lower than original sale prices, these grants are gold. Their most recent grant was awarded to Judge Memorial Catholic High School’s Interact Club. The club will be knitting hats and scarves for members of the community with material from the shop. 

The Octopod helps the organization host several camps throughout the state, at locations such as the Natural History Museum, Tracy Aviary and even here at the U. This past summer, they hosted their first-ever workshop for Goldman Sachs — a four-day youth workshop consisting of activities like a landfill tour, a tutorial on composting food, creating t-shirt bags and creating massive animal sculptures from reusable materials. 

All of these activities help the organization give back to the community in an environmentally friendly and creative way. 

No-Pressure Art

The best thing about Clever Octopus is the absence of pressure traditionally associated with being an artist. In various other craft stores, there’s an almost pretentious atmosphere driven to make a new artist feel overwhelmed. There’s always a risk when trying to recreate something you found on Pinterest with the added anxiety of spending money on supplies. Huang said, “I think being really affordable also helps people understand that it’s okay if the art doesn’t turn out okay. It’s like, this didn’t turn out the way I anticipated, but I didn’t spend a lot of money.” 

A trip to Clever Octopus guarantees a lot of things — education, creativity and a warm welcome. On the way out, the quaint shop leaves patrons with words of encouragement: “Create art, waste less and save money.” 


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