By Rick Hynum

Before you toss that old wine bottle or cardboard box in the trash, give it a second look: Just because it’s empty doesn’t mean it has served its only purpose. For Bella Almeida, a student at Duke University and founder of Earthy Creations, many discarded items have the potential to become amazing sustainable art—and to make money for the artists themselves.

Almeida, who majors in Public Policy and minors in Chinese, attended the Sullivan Foundation’s study-abroad program in Prague during the 2019 summer break and went home with an innovative idea for a social enterprise with a sustainable art focus: creating a network of college artists who turn used materials—many of which would otherwise end up in landfills—into objects of beauty and lasting value.

Now Earthy Creations is poised to expand to at least two other university campuses—Tulane and the University of California-Santa Cruz—through start-up ambassador programs this fall. Led by an all-women team, the venture’s goal, Almeida said, is “to help young, aspiring artists pursue their creative dreams,” with a website that features each creator’s works for sale “so that consumers can build a relationship with budding artists.”

Duke University student Bella Almeida attended the Sullivan Foundation’s 2019 study-abroad program in Prague and hit upon an idea for a social enterprise with a sustainable art focus.

Developing a Business Model
Like most social entrepreneurs, Almeida has had to learn, adapt and rethink her strategy along the way. “Originally, I simply wanted to start a club at my school that allowed me to express my creative side and make a difference for an issue that really mattered to me—the environmental crisis,” said Almeida, a Miami native who’s also working on her undergraduate certificate in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke. “However, when I went to the study-abroad program and was pushed to think in terms of an ‘enterprise,’ I realized that the idea for Earthy Creations could be converted into a business model through the sale of the pieces.”

Almeida also suspected she was onto something that could spread far and wide. “The interest shown by my classmates in starting the same club at their universities encouraged me to think of Earthy Creations as something that could be a college chain with an online center/connector,” she said.

Back home, Almeida started Earthy Creations as “an organization dedicated to directing the attention of students—the citizens of the future—to the problem of mismanaged waste through art.” After its first year, she began to revise her business model and growth plans. “The idea was that we would have clubs at schools across the nation that would send pieces to the site for sale,” Almeida recalled. “There were a couple of flaws with this model to begin with. First off, I soon discovered that the club model wasn’t very feasible for expansion to other schools because of all the forms and red tape you had to cut through to actually start a club. It would just take too much time and effort to coordinate all the necessary forms if we want to grow big. Second, school money allotted to the club can’t be tied to the sale of any product. Hence, it was going to be complicated to separate the school’s money from what was being created by our artists and sold on the site.”

Empty wine bottles became stunning works of art in student workshops hosted by Earthy Creations on the Duke University campus.

Her plans to host weekly workshops on campus—in which students would make art out of recyclable materials—didn’t quite pan out as expected either. “Because Duke attracts students who are ultra-focused on their set career paths—predominantly consulting, pre-med and computer science—they scarcely make time to do any kind of art,” Almeida said. “The only really popular workshops were ones in which people could transform a small object, like a wine bottle, for room decor. But the workshops were successful in the fact that they built a really strong bond between me and the 10 other students I had recruited to host the workshops.”

Earthy Creations’ exhibits featuring students’ artwork also proved to be a hit. “We had an exhibit in the middle of campus where people could pop in as they walked by, and we received super-positive feedback from it. People took pictures with some of the pieces, and that spread the message of the potential to innovate with recyclable goods even further. The buzz from the exhibit also helped attract more artists for Earthy Creations.”

Building a Network
Encouraged by the response, Almeida began putting together a team of likeminded Duke students, including Abby Shlesinger, Kat Beben, Arushi Bhatia, Kira Upin and Geshna Aggarwal, to build out the concept. She also tapped into her network of friends at Tulane and UCSC to bring Earthy Creations to their campuses. “The Tulane program had just finished the process of officially becoming a club when [the pandemic] started, and the UCSC program was just about to start that process,” she said. “However, now that we’ve decided to pursue ambassador programs instead of clubs, these programs will begin to grow as soon as students return to school in the fall.”

Each program will be managed by three ambassadors who will recruit artists on their campuses and coordinate one or two exhibits each year. Ambassadors earn a 5 percent commission from the sale of the pieces they collect for the website. “We also decided to take the most popular workshop—empty wine bottle painting—and sell the event to big companies as a team-building event for employees that supported a good cause,” Almeida said. “These events will be coordinated by ambassadors as well and will help add a steady stream of revenue to support the site.”

Almeida and her team also plan to pitch the Earthy Creations concept this fall to art departments and MFA programs at other universities and reach out to high schools as well. “We are looking for people who exhibit skills of leadership, passion, organization and team management,” she said. “They don’t necessarily need to be artists, just people with initiative, because starting an ambassador program means being an entrepreneur at your own school.”

Duke University student artist Dylan Newbro’s works, including Medusa, were displayed at Earthy Creations’ first exhibit and on the company’s website.

Transforming Trash
Meanwhile, Almeida and her fellow artists demonstrate that yesterday’s rubbish has meaning and worth beyond its short-lived practical utility: Reimagined through the eyes of an artist and reshaped with an artist’s hands, it can be transformed and made whole again, expressing eternal truths through materials that were meant to be disposable. Sustainable art also raises awareness of mismanaged waste and its environmental impact, Almeida believes.

The artwork—soon to be available on Earthy Creations’ website—is both stunning and often eerily unsettling. In Dylan Newbro’s works, a recycled camera and tangled wires strapped around a mannequin’s head become the mythological Medusa, while a discarded circuit board and strands of cables attached to a sculpted golden hand convey the fabled touch of King Midas. Kira Upin’s “Nature vs. Nurture”—a deconstructed baby’s crib littered with plastic bottles and fake flowers—challenges us to rethink contemporary notions of value and the viewer’s role in the web of life.

Zoe Kim’s “Fracture,” also for sale on the website, is Almeida’s favorite piece. “It’s a broken mirror with a very rustic-looking stone frame,” she said. “The artist painted a portrait split by the break of the mirror. The half with the mirror is a more realistic depiction of the girl with a sunny spring background. Meanwhile, the side of the mirror with the glass missing depicts the girl’s hair transformed into water with a Koi fish swimming nearby.”

The Earthy Creations website itself will serve as an online gallery for art made out of used materials. It’s a work in progress, with details of how it will function as a business still being ironed out. In addition to the ambassadors’ commissions, the student artists themselves will receive 50 percent of each sale, while the remaining proceeds will be used to support Earthy Creations programs at other universities.

“Before selling anything, we are in the middle of performing market research to figure out exactly who our target consumer is and what they are willing and able to pay,” Almeida noted. “We are also working on calculating rates for carbon-neutral shipping of our products. After the target consumer, price and shipping have been determined, we will begin working on our marketing strategy. Once that has been finalized, we will post the site and get ready for sales.”

Another work on display at Earthy Creations’ first exhibit, Kira Upin’s “Nature vs. Nurture” challenges contemporary notions of value and raises questions about the viewer’s role in the web of life.

A Tailormade Career
Almeida said the Sullivan Foundation’s study-abroad program was “a transformative experience that really helped me develop my business idea by teaching me to identify and research the problem, define a mission, assess costs and competition, set milestones, and determine a measure of impact before implementation. The program also helped me believe in myself and in my idea because I received a lot of encouragement and support from students and professors alike.”

Now that she has cleared many of the hurdles that come with launching a social enterprise, Almeida said, “I can definitely see myself doing it fulltime after graduation. If not that, then I would probably work for a business for two years to learn the ropes before trying again with another business of my own,” she added.

“After this experience creating and leading Earthy Creations, I can say with certainty that I want to be an entrepreneur,” she said. “To me, there is no other profession that gives me the same feeling of fulfillment and freedom for creativity and leadership. I also have always struggled to choose a career because I have such diverse interests. With entrepreneurship, I don’t have to choose. I can create a business with any combination of interests I desire. I want to tailor my own career. I don’t want my career to tailor me.”

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