“Have you heard of the Newport guy?” a friend asked me as we visited at a neighborhood garage sale. “He takes pictures of empty Newport cigarette packages he finds on the ground and turns them into art. You should blog about him sometime.”
I nodded. “That’s a good idea.”
The Newport guy had posted his work on the north Minneapolis Facebook pages to raise awareness about littering. His real name was Paul Tietjen, and his camera lens captured apathy crumpled up in the wayward cigarette wrappers he photographed. I contacted him to find out more.
“Bring your husband and come over to our harvest party,” he said. “I’ll show you my work.”
On the evening of the party, Husband and I drove the five blocks to Paul Tietjen’s house. He and his wife Danielle slipped away from their guests and swept us into a gracious welcome.
“Have some homemade kombucha.” Danielle indicated bottles on a small table, and then she gestured across the yard. “And there’s the food. Please make yourselves comfortable.”
The back yard dripped with strung lights, a velvet couch and soft chairs formed a visiting space near the garage, and candles speckled the long rustic table—set up along the fence—that beckoned the guests to rest and savor the food harvested from the community garden that snuggled up next to their lot.
Paul told us about their thirteen years in the neighborhood and then whisked us inside the house to the living room where his art resided.
“Each collage is called Newport Trail, but the whole series is named #YesIPickedUp, because people always ask me that.” He tossed out a light laugh, then brought out some collages of photos and propped them up against a coffee table. Each frame contained sixteen snapshots of empty—and sometimes rumpled and dirty—Newport packs.
I crouched to examine the photos. “How did you come up with this idea?”
“I started to see garbage on the streets and sidewalks on my way to work each day, and I noticed one thing over and over: empty Newport cigarette packs. So, I decided to go for a walk, photograph a Newport package whenever I saw one on the ground, pick it up, throw it away, and at the end of the walk, make a collage of the pictures.” More frames with photos leaned against another wall. “That first walk turned into more. And I decided to create photo collages over the course of ten walks.”
No matter which direction in north Minneapolis he strolled, Paul could collect at least sixteen discarded Newport packs within thirty minutes. And each time was the same: he’d take a snapshot, scoop up the empty pack, throw it away, and keep going.
“There’s a lot of littering going on.” I raised my eyebrows. “And smoking.”
Paul nodded. “And it brings up a lot of questions. If you’re a smoker, you have a place on you—like a pocket—for your pack of cigarettes. And you carry it around until you’re done with it. Why throw it on the ground? Why not carry the empty package until you’re near a garbage can at the place where you’ll buy your next pack?”
Over a number of months, Paul had posted his photos online, and his work sparked interest in the neighborhood. Soon others chronicled their own Newport garbage findings. And when they hunted for the littered cigarette packages, they noticed other trash too, and it became impossible for them to leave it on the ground. But while many people in north Minneapolis awakened to the reality of the trash around them, not everyone cared.
While driving him to work one day, Paul’s wife Danielle stopped at a red light. Together they watched an old man with a cane cross the street in front of them.
“An empty soda bottle blocked the old man’s path, and so he shoved it along with his cane to the other side of the street, even though it was a big effort for him,” Paul said. “A garbage can sat at the end of the crosswalk, near a bus stop.”
“So, he picked up the bottle and threw it away?” I asked.
“He pushed it up the curb with his cane and then poked it into some bushes next to the garbage can.”
“Wow,” said Husband.
“Why would a community be so apathetic about living with garbage instead of picking it up? What does that say about human nature?” Paul fixed his gaze on us. “And what garbage do we put up with in our own lives?”
I stared at the photos of trash he had caught under glass. Garbage in our own lives.
Later, on our drive home, the streetlights highlighted the remnants of other people’s lives dotting the road, and I saw it: dissatisfaction wadded up in burger wrappers, brokenness brimming from fast food bags, and soul sickness stuffed inside old beer cans. A trail of need scattered out onto the street.
Paul’s art holds up a magnifying glass for some; for others, a hand mirror. He reflects the truth about life and trash for those who dare to look and do something about it. The beginnings of transformation. Because when real change comes, the garbage goes away.
*Paul Tietjen’s Newport Trail photo collection was featured at the State of the Garbage Compost Summit hosted in north Minneapolis on August 18, 2015. He also hopes to submit his collection to local art shows, businesses, and community centers around north Minneapolis.