Jill Gruber thinks that a warehouse filled with hundreds of severed, mangled body parts is fun. Torsos, hands, eyes, mouths, bodies (minus the heads) hanging by their necks from the rafters. “Ghoulish-looking stuff,” she says. “Body parts all smashed up. A feast for the eyes. Hilarious.”
It’s not what you think. First of all, Gruber is not talking about real body parts. These are fakes, made from latex. Second, Gruber’s interest is environmental and economic, not sociopathic. She’s the executive director of the Hudson Valley Materials Exchange, an organization that finds commercially produced items that are destined for the trash and collects them to be reused, primarily by artists and educational facilities. She discovered the body parts a few years ago at a Saugerties-based company called Simulaids, which makes them as training devices for medical and emergency response personnel. Gruber grabbed about 300 parts that were headed for the garbage pile and sold them — all of them. “I’m not exaggerating, we sold every single body part,” she says. “One artist bought about 30 mouth pieces to make a mirror frame. They were probably the most fun products we ever had.”
But the time for fun may be running out. HVME, which Gruber founded 16 years ago, is teetering on the financial edge. Even though it has, by her own estimates, raised more than $1 million from the sale of materials (which were poured back into the organization) and diverted more than 3,500 tons from the Hudson Valley waste stream (which in turn saves local municipalities hundreds of thousands of dollars), the organization itself might end up in the waste bin.
Photograph by Jessica Brown
A portrait of the artist as a pack rat
Gruber, 61, hails from Modena, Ulster County, and has a background in the theater; at one time she also worked as a mental health aide, often using crafts and creativity in her treatments. Later, as the recycling coordinator for New Paltz and Saugerties, she became more interested in reuse. “Recycling is a Band-Aid approach,” she says. “I am a pack rat by nature, and as I was looking at the waste stream I saw lots of reusable stuff that was not being recycled.” In 1993, she applied for a grant to set up HVME as a municipal program of the town of New Paltz.
“The original purpose of the program was to establish a local classified ad service for reusable commercial waste items,” she says. “But I wanted to focus on local wastes in smaller quantities closer to home.” She specifically targeted the arts and education communities: the first products that were listed seemed to have applications to those areas, she says — and Ulster County has one of the country’s highest per capita rates of working artists. “I knew the art community, and as recycling coordinator I thought they could and would use these materials,” she says.
She personally visited local manufacturers, sifting through their waste to find artistic gold. “There were some really fun materials,” she remembers. “We were right across the street from a company that did contract mailing and packaging. For some reason, they shipped baseballs that came in a plastic clamshell. We collected thousands of these clamshells and they were the coolest things for art projects. We got rid of all of them.”
That first year she collected and distributed, free for the taking, nearly 10 tons of reusable waste material from a tiny, 400-square-foot warehouse at the New Paltz town hall. “It was so much fun — every day was like Christmas. Sixteen years later it’s still the same. We are constantly amazed at what we find.”
As the amount of collected material increased, the organization quickly outgrew its space. Gruber incorporated HVME as a nonprofit in 1995 and moved to a 3,000-square-foot facility that September. At the grand opening, she took two body parts — a hand and a mouth — and made a necklace. “In my opening speech, I said, ‘HVME is living from hand to mouth,’ ” And that has been a constant problem.
The group began charging fees for some materials in 1996; today, nothing is free. In 1997, Gruber decided that HVME needed to become financially self-sufficient and not depend on government funding. The group began offering used and surplus building materials — windows, paint, insulation, and the like. Even more materials meant a need for even more space, and in 2001 HVME moved to a larger facility at Stewart Airport. That location worked very well, as school teachers, builders, artists and other individuals came from around the Northeast to sample their wares.
But in 2007 the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey took over Stewart, and threw HVME out. “Our building was directly across the street from the terminal. They tore it down to use as a parking lot,” Gruber says. She has not been able to find an affordable place to relocate. The materials are now in storage trailers. Both Gruber and the one other full-time employee have been laid off. “We completely closed for the winter,” she says. “It has been devastating.”
Gruber remains determined to keep HVME alive. She just isn’t sure how. “We will reopen in March,” she vows. “We plan to use a bus and create a traveling store. We hope to get that on the road, literally and figuratively.” To do so, she applied for a U.S. Department of Agriculture Solid Waste Management grant of $63,000. “We hope to collaborate with the Town of New Paltz to expand and establish a fully fleshed-out regional reuse program,” she says. “I have been trying to retire for a long time, but I can’t yet. We have a lot of obligations, and I won’t just let it go. That’s not an option.”
HVME is the only organization between New York City and Rochester that does materials exchange for arts and education, Gruber claims. There are no programs like it in bordering states. “We could reduce the county waste stream by 30 percent,” she claims. “The state could save a lot of money if they funded more programs like ours.”
And we the public could purchase, say, a roll of awning fabric from a Middletown company, which wholesales for $20 a yard, for just $3. Or napkin paper from a firm in Newburgh for $1 a roll. “You can make your own napkins, towels, or packaging material,” Gruber says. “Restaurants use it for cleaning. And the art that comes from it is amazing. This stuff is expensive. Those are the kind of materials that come in regularly that could really be useful, and not just end up in the landfill.
“You have to come see what we have.”
The New Paltz Recycling Center’s dump is the temporary home of the Hudson Valley Materials Exchange. Visit www.hvmaterialsexchange.com for more information.