And for three decades, the Denver native has found ways to celebrate refuse and the people who handle it. The sometimes controversial Ukeles has done everything from documenting herself washing the steps of a theater in Hartford, Connecticut, to choreographing snow removal by workers in Japan. She thinks some peoples' attitudes about the sanitation profession are, well, a lot of rubbish.
"Very often, especially in our culture, this work doesn't carry with it a sense of honor," Ukeles explains. "I think that's ridiculous."
In 1978, her interest in artistic recycling earned Ukeles the title of "official unsalaried artist-in-residence" at the New York Department of Sanitation, a position she retains today. More recently, she was asked to act as a consultant to a landscaping firm chosen to turn a massive Staten Island landfill into a vibrant public space, a project that is expected to take decades. Says Ukeles with a chuckle: "I just hope I live to see some of it happen. I'm 65 years old. You do the math."
On Tuesday, February 8, the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture presents An Evening With Mierle Laderman Ukeles in conjunction with the Upstarts and Matriarchs exhibit running through March 22 in the Mizel's Singer Gallery. The artist will discuss her works, supplementing her presentation with photographs. She hopes to convey her respect for both the process of waste removal and the often-overlooked folks who do that dirty work.
"What has always struck me is the tremendous art of handling this material," she says.
And for those curious about the scope and scale of her projects, Ukeles has a simple explanation: "I think the reason I do such large work is because the sky in Denver is so big," she says. "I always had those mountains in the corner of my eye."