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Thursday, May 05, 2005 | Tijuana-based artist Jaime Ruiz Otis finds artistic inspiration in trash. He sees beauty in recycled waste. For his first solo exhibition in San Diego – which opens tonight at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in downtown – Ruiz Otis will display prints, sculptures and installations created from discarded materials that he discovered during regular trips to maquiladoras (or maquilas) – the large, NAFTA-initiated factories that dot the U.S.-Mexico border – and recycling plants. The cheerful, 28-year-old artist took a break from the stress of installing his show to share a cup of coffee and discuss the buried treasures that lurk inside dumpsters.

What is your favorite medium to work in?

Paint … and I’ve always liked working with found materials. Before I paint, I like to go to abandoned houses and buildings to see the trace of things that were once there and have since vanished.

When I was in Tecate, Mexico, I was working in a maquiladora. It was there that I started with the whole concept of recycling. A lot of people work with found materials and found objects, but for me, my preoccupation is with the aesthetic of the trash – how I can make something beautiful from something that is discarded.

I started finding a lot of materials like used fax toner, metallic foils – gold, bronze, copper, silver – that we used to print text on books and then the rest would be discarded. [The maquiladoras] only use about 5 percent of the material and then they throw away a lot. I began transferring those materials to surfaces. For my paintings, I discovered my own techniques for how to transfer certain materials.

How long did you work in the maquiladora?

About eight months. The factory made large [freight] containers. I was in charge of the [disposal of] toxic residue, such as cleaner and paint.

Did you work there because you knew you wanted to do this art project, or did your work there lead to the idea?

I worked there because I needed the money. While working there, I started to find really interesting things.

The new things that I’m working on right now are called “re-possibilities;” I re-recycle things. I go to the recyclers, where people go and sell their old metal, old plastic and then the recyclers triturate it and sell the material.

What inspired you to make art from maquiladora waste (rather than waste from any other site)?

Because I was involved in the maquilas. There are a lot of maquiladoras and the materials are not organic. They are industrial, everything is made there.

Your work has been described as “operating abstractly, without making use of recognizable features and traditional border iconography.” How does your work address life on the border without directly calling attention to the border?

The material itself is charged with a lot of information about the border and the industrial production. That’s the thing. [The work] has to be accompanied with tags or something. If you see one of my paintings that are all gold, you’re not going to see trash [or know that it was made from discarded foils found at a maquiladora]. That’s what I mean about the aesthetics, making something beautiful with trash. I think that it’s important that people [who view his work] read some text to figure out more. But only one text, not a lot like one with each piece. I don’t like that. I like the work that speaks for itself.

Once you find an object, what is the next step in your art-making process? How do your findings go from trash to sculptures?

It depends. I have been with some things for three or four years and nothing happens, but then like that, I get an idea … it’s like good wines, some materials get better with age and some materials, the ideas are in the moment. That’s another thing that is important – that the material itself is the one that gives me the idea. The material is charged with information; the material gives me the idea of what to do with it.

So, you’re inside a dumpster. What draws you to an object?

Again, it depends. I’m not looking for something specific. Sometimes I find things that give me pleasure or make me say “wow,” like finding a treasure. For example, last time that I went to look for things, I found a box of VHS tapes from the surveillance cameras in the maquiladoras. The material gives me the idea … I would like to make a circle with 50 TV monitors and play the videos on them.

How long have you been going to the dumpsters?

Since 1999.

How often do you visit the maquiladoras’ dumpsters?

I haven’t been to the maquiladoras in probably four months. I’m more into the recyclers right now. When I was working more with the maquiladoras, I probably went two or three times a month. I tried to go once a week.

A lot of the materials that the maquiladoras don’t throw away as trash, they sell it to plastic recyclers or metal recyclers. Those materials I cannot get from the maquiladoras, so there are a lot of interesting materials that they recycle. They’re like yards, they triturate the plastic, all of the things that are defective – a little crack or scratch – they discard.

What’s your most favorite dumpster discovery?

There are a lot. They are like my kids [laughs]. Each one has certain values. For example, in this show I’m going to present some prints, called “Registros de Labor/trademarks” (Labor Registers). I found these big acrylic plates [he stands up to demonstrate the width and height of the plates] that they use in the maquiladoras for cutting tables. That’s one of my favorite findings. It gets close to the people that work in the maquiladoras, the phenomenon of the work.

I’m going to make a series of 12 editions of these prints to sell and 15 percent of the sales from those editions, I’m going to donate to the maquiladoras’ nurseries. I would feel bad if I only used [maquiladora waste] to look creative and show it here and there … but what about the people who make that? I thought I can’t do anything for them because they’re already working and they have to work but I hope I can do something for the kids, since I have a little kid, too. I would like that, if somebody was an artist and I was a maquiladora worker, I would appreciate that a lot.

What is your strangest/most unusual discovery?

I would love to say a thousand dollars, but no. I’ve found a lot of things strange, but I don’t know what they are. The worst thing is bathroom tissue and all that stuff. I don’t like to see that. That’s the price that I have to pay, seeing disgusting things sometimes. But there are a lot strange things.

“Cerca Series: Jaime Ruiz Otis” runs through June 26 at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego at 1001 Kettner Blvd. in downtown. For more information, call (619) 234-1001 or visit

– CLAIRE CARASKA, Voice Staff Writer

Please contact Claire Caraska directly at

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