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One artist’s trash is another’s treasure

At Boston Sculptors Gallery, Carmelo Midili exhibits sculptures made of paintings he rescued from the garbage

Frequent gallery patron Christine Kyle of Cambridge looks at "The Space Beyond," the largest piece in the exhibit “Carmelo Midili: Beyond the Shape,” on display at the Boston Sculptors Gallery LaunchPad space through May 1.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

In 2007, Carmelo Midili was a student at The Art Students League of New York, working a nighttime maintenance job at the school as part of his work-study arrangement. One day, in the trash bins of the Midtown Manhattan school, he stumbled upon a treasure trove: anonymous paintings, seemingly destined for the dump.

He began taking these rejects back to his studio, where he repurposed them into sculptures. He would cut pieces from the canvas panels at random, screw these fragments onto wooden structures he assembled, and glue on additional cutouts to make the works multidimensional. When Midili’s work-study position ended, other maintenance workers from the school, who knew about his project, set aside trashed paintings for Midili to pick up. Midili soon amassed hundreds of the cast-off canvases.

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Now, 16 of these sculptures make up the exhibition “Carmelo Midili: Beyond the Shape,” on display in the entryway space of the Boston Sculptors Gallery through May 1.

“It made me reflect about failure, because sometimes people think that failure is something really bad for you. They are ashamed about that,” Midili, who lives in Stoneham, said of working with the discarded paintings. “From my experience, failure is really important — it’s a process of getting better.”

“Carmelo Midili: Beyond the Shape” is on display at the LaunchPad space of Boston Sculptors Gallery. The 16 pieces are repurposed from discarded paintings. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Midili, who is from Sicily and studied civil engineering at the Polytechnic University of Turin, started out by painting over the canvases to create monochromatic sculptures. But he said he felt he was “losing the soul of the painting” by obscuring the original work, and he wanted to preserve the feeling of “frustration” he sensed. Now, he leaves the paintings as he finds them.

“It’s like the painting was talking to me — there is [a] story, there is feeling,” he said, “and if I cover it, I’m just ruining that.”

So, Midili keeps several elements of the artistic process visible in the final products. The sculptures are a melange of colors, styles, and patterns — a swirl of orange here, a piece of a female portrait there. Some of the sculptures include snippets of the canvas backings; you can see the red swoop of the brand logo for Fredrix — a canvas manufacturer — poking out of “The Space Beyond,” the largest piece in the exhibit. To fortify the sculptures, Midili coats each piece with a mixture of pumice sand and glue, making them rough to the touch.

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After Midili finishes gluing the canvases onto the wooden structures, he adds tape to help bind all the elements as the glue dries. He used to peel the tape off afterward, but now, he leaves it on, punctuating the colorful paintings with black stripes.

“It’s part of the process, so I keep it,” he said.

Midili does not plan ahead of time where he will place the canvasses onto the wooden structure, instead letting the design come to him spontaneously. Some of the sculptures have soft curves (for these, Midili strips away layers from the canvas backings to make them more pliable), and others are more geometric, with sharp corners and edges. “I like to make it dynamic,” he said.

"I want to give importance to failure," said Carmelo Midili, whose exhibit, “Carmelo Midili: Beyond the Shape,” is on display in the LaunchPad space of the Boston Sculptors Gallery through May 1. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Midili’s work is in the Boston Sculptors Gallery’s LaunchPad space — open to the work of artists who aren’t members of the cooperative gallery — directly to the left of the entryway and visible from the sidewalk. Julia Shepley, head of the LaunchPad committee, said she believed Midili’s civil engineering background is evident in his body of work.

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“He thinks about something existing in space,” said Shepley. “He wanted there to be more than one dimension. He wanted you to be able to see more than one view at a time.”

All of the pieces in the exhibit are for sale, with prices ranging from $325 to $6,200 for “The Space Beyond.” Midili said these works are his attempt to “give a second chance” to the discarded paintings.

“I want to give importance to failure,” said Midili. “[If] you are afraid to fail or you’re afraid to make a mistake, you don’t go anywhere.”


Dana Gerber can be reached at dana.gerber@globe.com