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Bronx Artist Turns Trash into Treasure

Bronx mixed-media artist Wonder Lee uses discarded objects to create art pieces, furniture, and a line of custom bow-ties.
Bronx mixed-media artist Wonder Lee uses discarded objects to create art pieces, furniture, and a line of custom bow-ties.
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DNAinfo/Jeanmarie Evelly

THE BRONX — It was good old-fashioned thriftiness that first sent Wonder Lee searching the city's curbs and recycling bins for art supplies and inspiration.

A typical cash-strapped New Yorker, the Bronx artist created her first piece of furniture — a table fashioned from discarded construction materials — simply because she couldn't afford to splurge on a store-bought one.

"I had a little apartment in Queens at the time and I couldn't afford to furnish it," said Wonder Lee, 36. "I figured I'd start making my own art and making my own furniture."

That craftiness has grown into an full-on art career. Her work focuses on creating mixed media pieces out of discarded objects and materials, giving her art an eco-friendly bent. She describes herself on her website as "a self-taught green assemblage artist."

"If I'm driving around and I see something I like, I'll take it," said Lee, who was born and raised in the Bronx and now lives in Pelham Bay.

Lee scans the streets of the city for discarded objects to use as materials in her projects: old cassette tapes, chunks of Styrofoam, discarded television sets, and turntables have all been used in her pieces.

"Whatever attracts me," she said. "I'll pick an object up and ask myself, 'What can I make with this? How can I give it a new life, give it a new home?'"

Though she has no formal arts training, Lee has taught poetry workshops to inmates at Rikers Island and mixed media arts classes to kids for the Children's Aid Society.

Before she entered the art world, she worked as a school bus driver. But once she started creating her recycled pieces, she said, more people started liking them, and she transitioned her art into a full-time job, holding her first solo show in January 2010 at 1hundredb, a graffitti-inspired art shop and gallery on the Lower East Side.

Since then, she's sold her work at dozens of art shows, events and festivals across the city. At the end of the month, she'll be one of the vendors at Brooklyn's Afro Punk Fest, an outdoor music festival at Commodore Barry Park.

Included in her creations is a line of wearable custom bow-ties, some made from materials like recycled T-shirts, and others fashioned out of old plastic Lego pieces.

"I always liked wearing bow ties," she said. When she couldn't find many in stores that she liked, she started making her own.

"I started wearing them, and people liked them," she said. She now sells the neckwear on her online Etsy shop, and at art shows and other locations across the city, carting them around in an old-fashioned green suitcase.

In addition to her recycled art, Lee is a self-published writer. Her book of poetry, "Maxed Out," came out it paperback last year. It chronicles several months of self-reflection after a heartbreak, she said.

"How I pretty much got over that emotional rollercoaster we all go on," she explained.

Lee has also written a Haiku every day for the last two years, 17-syllable poems that she shares on her Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook pages. She started the "Haiku a Day," project in July of 2010 and says she's never missed a day.

"I found that most people wouldn’t take the time to read a full poem but they would automatically be able to read three lines," she said.

Thursday's Haiku read: "If you hold grudges/how could unconditional love/ever exist?"

"I wanted to do something nice for people. I wanted to send out a positive message," Lee said. "Something positive and encouraging."