As trash piled up on the sidewalks of New York City during the 1979 sanitation workers’ strike, Christy Rupp, an eco-artist and activist focused on urban systems and the environment, was out in the streets, pasting up prints of rats on walls and perching little rat sculptures on piles of trash where real rats had been spotted. In the years that followed, Rupp has continued to blend her art with environmentalism.

Rupp’s new book Noisy Autumn: Sculptures & Works on Paper, a career-spanning retrospective collection of her works, will be published this month by Insight Editions/Earth Aware with essays by critics Lucy Lippard and Carlo McCormick, curators Nina Felshin and Amy Lipton, and poetry by Bob Holman. The book collects four decades of Rupp’s environmentally focused works, including sea turtle forms sculpted out of welded steel and recycled Tide bottles; manatee skeletons (created from repurposed credit cards), skeletons of extinct birds recreated using discarded chicken bones, and sinister collages in which giant drops of oil ooze over bucolic scenes.

PW talked to Rupp about her 40 years of transforming environmental issues into compelling works of art.

How does this book fit in with the rest of your work?

Christy Rupp: Creating a book like this has been a lifelong goal. I’ve wanted to do it forever. I’ve found [while making the book] how similar the intention of my work at the beginning was to where it is today. It started out with this interest in behavior and environment, and it morphed because I got interested in rats. From the very beginning, I saw a connection between waste and habitat, and really believing that our waste does create our habitat. So, here I am, 40 years later, still looking at the same thing.

How do you balance the environmental message with the aesthetics of your work?

I've never wanted to aestheticize waste, but I do think it's integral to the way we build our spaces. And that, as an artist, you can take it one step further and say well, these are our spaces. Our habitat is oil drums.

One would expect art made of garbage to be ugly, but yours is not. Why is that important?

Who says garbage is ugly? That's a cultural construct. Most garbage is stuff that we bought and we got rid of, and it looks beautiful. Plastic looks gorgeous in order to get us to buy it. Plastic is this very seductive material that's made to fit our bodies and attract us. When it accumulates, it gets really dirty and degraded, and the problem with plastic is it never goes away. But it is a product. Even as refuse, it's still a commodity. It still has value associated with it. It's a beautiful, seductive material that's made to attract humans.

How did you come to combine welded steel with Tide bottles?

I'm a welder. I like to draw a shape in steel, and then it supports paper or fabric or plastic really well. I just use it as an armature, but more like an exoskeleton than an armature. I was attracted to the vessels themselves and how permanent they were. They do look a little bit like bone sockets and they're engineered to look organic, and yet they're permanent.

Where do you get your materials?

Everywhere I can get them! With those, I think I was visiting a recycling center because I needed so many of the same thing. I try not to buy art materials. I try to salvage stuff from the waste stream. Ages ago I made a dolphin out of cat food cans, because there was some question about what's in cat food, so I needed lots and lots of cat food cans and those nets from the grocery store that garlic comes in. I put the word out to my friends. Once people get started saving stuff for you, they will do it for their whole life. I still get packages from friends that have a few credit cards and some net bags and bottle caps. And I like investing the labor—I like making my labor a part of the materials cost.

Because your art is made of discarded materials, do you worry that it will deteriorate as it ages?

There was this one piece called Species Born—Agradable that I made of disposable garbage bags. This is 40 years ago, and these bags were supposed to degrade in the landfill. I made this very large frog with a little monster frog coming out of it that was made out of one of those bags, and it's 40 years old and that that little frog is still intact. It's just fine. It hasn't changed at all.