Erika Johnson is the executive director of the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse (PCCR). The center is both a shop of reclaimed materials and a center for hands-on creative programming. An evangelist for reuse, Johnson believes reuse is an essential and underappreciated way to build sustainable communities. Johnson is also an installation artist with a long-term passion for found, rescued, and reclaimed materials, and a more recent obsession with microscopic animals.

Remake Learning: What’s new at the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse?

Erika Johnson: We specialize in used and reclaimed materials, but there is always something new going on. Nora and Katy on our education team have been helping our friends in the Climate & Urban Systems Partnership to develop fun, creative ways of sharing scientifically accurate information about climate change. Their 2015 calendar is filling up fast with afterschool events, workshops for kids and educators, and festivals.

Our biggest news this minute is that we are racing the clock to meet a dollar-for-dollar matching challenge from an anonymous donor to help us purchase a new van. Since our old van died in December, we haven’t been able to pick-up large donations and our staff and volunteers are carpooling to events. Our community is totally pulling together for us, and we’re having a pay-what-you-can, potluck, grown-up crafting party on February 12 to help us raise the last little bit. We keep the shop open late the second Thursday of every month for Open Studio, where creative minds 18 and older can play with the abundant materials in our “bulk” section. This month will be extra special.

We like to think these kids will grow into adults who reimagine waste as a resource for building a better world.

What do you consider the center’s biggest accomplishment so far?

I am so proud that we exist! Since 2010, we’ve grown from a tiny team of artists in an attic to a thriving resource for our community. I love that so many of our city’s libraries, schools, nonprofit organizations, teachers, artists, and innovators use materials from PCCR for their creative projects.

An entire generation of Pittsburgh kids is practicing creativity and sustainability through play with reclaimed materials. We like to think that means they will grow into adults who reimagine waste as a resource for building a better world.

What’s the toughest part about the work you do? 

The hardest thing is knowing how much amazing stuff gets thrown away every day in our city and not having the capacity to get more of it into the hands of educators, artists, and makers who could use it. We’re proud of the fact that we diverted over 35 tons of reusable material from the landfill last year, but that’s actually less than the city’s recycling team picks up every day.

What makes a collaboration successful?

Successful collaboration requires trust—both in ones’ collaborators and in the process of co-creation—and a willingness to surrender individual control. My friend Hannah DuPlessis recently gave a brilliant talk at Google’s Pittsburgh offices in which she talked about successful collaboration through the lens of improvisational theatre. It’s a great read for anyone interested in creating with others.

What’s your favorite thing to do in Pittsburgh on a Sunday afternoon?

If it’s cold outside, there’s nothing better than a visit to one of our great museums. On a sunny day, though, you’re more likely to find me in the Homewood Cemetery looking at frogs and moss and collecting pond water to look at with my homemade microscope.