From Discarded to Art
Turnip Green Creative Reuse helps Nashville artists turn trash into treasure, while shining a citywide spotlight on recycling
Look around your house. Have some halfbaked projects that never panned out collecting dust in your basement? Maybe you’re worried about the volume of trash you put out each week but aren’t sure how cut back. Need help? Look no further than Turnip Green Creative Reuse.
“We essentially are attempting to divert as many materials from the landfill as possible and redistribute them back to creative people who need them,” says Turnip Green executive director Leah Sherry. “That includes kids and under-funded schools, teachers, artists — anybody who can benefit.”
A small group of eco-minded founders launched Turnip Green in 2010, and eight years later — with a full-time staff of three and a cadre of volunteers and teachers — the growing organization has a home base on Woodland Street and a presence that extends throughout the city.
At home, there’s a “donate what you wish” retail store, a “Green Gallery” with monthly exhibitions, an artist marketplace, and classes led by local artists and experts. At schools, businesses, churches, and other organizations across Nashville, you’ll find the Turnip Green team regularly bringing free programming and leading field trips, all focused on why and how to embrace recycling.
Sherry, who has a background in arts education, came to Nashville from Arkansas, where she grew up on “kind of a hippie compound” that spurred “this love of being outside and the environment and also being really creative at the same time.”
A chance encounter at a previous job — cashier at Trader Joe’s — led her to Turnip Green in 2015.
“The founder of Turnip Green, Kelly [Tipler], came through my line and we just had a great conversation as I was ringing up her groceries,” Sherry says. “She did some online stalking and found me and plugged me into Turnip Green and I started immediately.”
Sherry began as the education coordinator and was promoted to executive director. Over her tenure, the organization has seen immense growth.
“I really thought it would be slowing by now, but it just keeps growing exponentially, which is wonderful,” Sherry says. “When I first started, it was me and one other part-time staff member, working in the shop and doing some of the workshops.
“With my background and experience with teaching and writing curriculum and writing grants, I was able to focus more of my time on developing our education area of service, and the community truly responded to that. Schools started wanting us to come do our environmental- and arts-education programs. We weren’t really even advertising, but people started reaching out and booking our programs. We started working with the libraries and a bunch of different [Metro Nashville] ‘Community Achieves’ schools. We started doing birthday parties. Now we have huge contracts with the school district and with Metro Nashville Public Works.”
With Public Works, Turnip Green heads up “all of the recycling, composting, litter, and waste reduction education for the city.” It’s a five-year contract, and one Sherry hopes endures and expands as the city itself continues to grow. For Metro Schools, Turnip Green partners with individual schools — right now, they have contracts with Inglewood Elementary here in East Nashville and Whitsitt Elementary in Woodbine — to provide after-school programs for students.
“Those two schools are so amazing,” Sherry says. “We actually are able to pay our teaching artists. They’re with them every day from 3 to 6, Monday through Friday. The kids go straight from school to the cafeteria and our teachers help feed them dinner. Then every day there are different art lessons using our supplies that we rescued from the landfills. So, the kids get to learn a lot about how to be better stewards of the Earth.”
Not surprisingly, Nashville’s recent growth has also been a boon for Turnip Green and its reach. “Right now, I’m looking at the calendar and we have about 50 programs just this week,” Sherry says. “That’s pretty on par, if not slow. I’m such a data nerd and I love spreadsheets, and we have continually increased our number of programs and the number of people we’ve reached.
“Last year we taught about 20,000 people just through the education area of service. So, there’s been growth in every area — the galleries, the education we’ve done, we’ve had increased traffic and sales in our shop. We get about a hundred pounds of materials donated every hour that we’re open right now. . . . When I first started there would be days we’d celebrate if we had one person come in the store and donate $5. Now we have seven people who work in the shop.”
That 100-pounds-per-hour figure is staggering, even considering the shop’s limited hours (2-6 p.m., Tuesday through Friday, noon to 6 p.m., Saturday and Sunday). It’s also an impressive display of the staff ’s resourcefulness, as their Woodland shop is, at the moment, the organization’s only place to store those materials.
“Donations come from everybody, everywhere,” Sherry says. “We have a lot of teachers who come in. There are artists who might have some extra art supplies. . . . A lot of times we get people who are moving and are like, ‘Regular thrift stores won’t take this, this, and this.’ That’s what we do. We try to find homes for those materials that people can’t recycle or can’t donate otherwise and typically get landfilled. We get a lot of our donations from businesses that have supplies in bulk. We’ve had U-Hauls show up with fabric samples from interior designers. You name it, it’s coming to us.”
With that many donations coming through the door any given day, it’s inevitable that some odd items have turned up, too. One of Sherry’s personal favorites: an old pistol, accidentally dropped off by an elderly woman donating a basket-weaving kit. The police took that one off of Turnip Green’s hands.
”ﾟWe had a competition once to see who could push a donated horse tooth off on a customer,” Sherry says, laughing. “All kinds of weird things come in.”
Those weird things may not present immediate usefulness, but they always end up finding a second home, often with folks looking to add an unusual touch to a piece of art or to their home decor. Art is of course a big part of Turnip Green’s mission, and it’s something they celebrate both in the programming they do and on the walls of their headquarters, which serve as a gallery for artists who create pieces using repurposed materials. They just launched a second Green Gallery in East Nashville, right down the road at Eastside Station (805 Woodland St.), and hopes are to expand further throughout the city in the future.
Turnip Green’s growth and expanding impact throughout Nashville is entirely contingent upon involvement from the community, whether through material donations, workshop attendance, or strategic partnerships. They’re also working hard to expand fundraising efforts, and at press time, were gearing up to host the second iteration of their “Reduce.Reuse.Repeat.” event — “a social function” with food music, art, and a silent auction, proceeds going to support the Turnip Green cause.
“I almost feel like we’re big kids now and we finally have our own fundraiser,” Sherry says. “We of course participate in Big Payback and all the other regular ones like Giving Tuesday. But [Reduce.Reuse.Repeat] went really well and was so much fun, so we’re doing that again.”
For anyone still wondering how to live a greener lifestyle in your own home, Sherry, who admits she may be a bit biased, has a simple piece of advice: Sign up for a class at Turnip Green.
“Take advantage of the programs that we can offer,” she says. “The city has invested in us to educate people who are wondering what they can do. We can offer programs for free, which we do, every day, and we have all levels. We have catered programs for anyone on any level who just wants to do a better job.”