Common Ground


a construction-managing woman becomes a trash maven and champion of upcycling
By: Donna Bogren

Nearly four years ago I left California bound for Asheville, seeking change after a long mainstream career in construction management. It felt like time to trade in the world of khakis, hard hats, contracts, and stress for something with more expansive human sensibilities.
Had the economy not conspired to keep me from looking (or hightailing it) back, I might have missed my true calling. What I found in Asheville was. . . trash.
It’s not that Asheville has more of it than anywhere else does. The fates simply put me nose-to-garbage-can with it too many times to ignore.
A temporary job at a grocery opened my eyes to how much perfectly good food is tossed. That led to learning about the cycle of waste throughout the food supply chain. Improvements are possible—from the field on down to our personal habits. Who isn’t guilty of harboring an old, furry refrigerator science experiment from time to time?
From there, it’s a simple step to thinking about composting instead of adding compostable stuff to landfills. Then there are the landfills. We toss exponentially more now than ever before. Where to put the trash, and how to keep toxins from leaching out is a serious issue. Then it’s on to plastic, a true scourge. There is a floating island of plastic trash in the Pacific Ocean that some say is twice as large as the state of Texas.
After getting this far into my new obsession, I visited the big local Goodwill warehouse for the first time and was viscerally struck by not just its size, but by its contents. It is huge, and filled with enormous bin after bin holding everything from the most hideous, mass-produced, cheap, yucky, dirty, broken stuff imaginable—some people would not want this stuff even when it was new—to designer silk blouses with nary a stain.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. This is just the stuff that wasn’t offhandedly tossed into the garbage. And although Goodwill warehouse itself covers about three acres by my rough estimate, it is in turn dwarfed by the big box stores churning out yet more stuff with short lives before it gets discarded.
This thought arose. It is sad there are so many with so little in this economy, yet as a whole we are up to our ears in stuff, engulfed by the parts and pieces of things that were manufactured, transported, packaged, and cheaply sold. All those natural resources were consumed only to become, too soon, trash.
There is something missing in the concept of cheap manufactured goods. That would be quality, beauty, and real utility. Do we value antiques because they came from a time when even the simplest tools and house wares were thoughtfully made and cared for? In my opinion, we crave (and at some level even need) natural beauty in our surroundings. Plastic laminates designed to look like wood are a bad joke on humanity, especially when real wood, from pallets to scrap lumber, is routinely tossed.    
Again, I dove into more learning about the pollution and destruction caused by the manufacture and supply of stuff. It is not a pretty picture.
But remember, I was here in Asheville during this process of discovery, and I was also absorbing this new community, with its farmers’ markets, thoughtful supporters of local food and the local economy, and its many excellent non-profit organizations. WNC is cohesive and ahead of the curve in forging new economic strengths. It also happens to be home to many talented artists and crafters, and has a long history of self-reliant people.
Thomas Edison once said “All it takes to create is a good imagination and a pile of junk.” Asheville teems with creativity, and there is no shortage of junk. Connect the dots, and you have Common Ground.
Common Ground is the name of my new shop. It is conceived of as a social entrepreneurship, though it will take a little time for it to fully grow into those britches. What it is now is a place for artists and crafters to sell upcycled wares. (Upcycling is the process of making something of greater use and value from what would otherwise be trash.)
I see it as a sort of challenge to creative minds. I made the window valances in the store from old window screens. The “Open” sign is made of the woven slats of plastic blinds. Every week since it’s been open , it has received new wares from local artists and crafters making use of everything from old canoe seats to blenders to mesh fruit bags.
These wares are more than novelties. They represent real income for local people using what’s locally available and would otherwise be landfill. They are far more aesthetically pleasing than mass-produced stuff, bringing that sense of intrinsic value and pleasure back home. They use few new materials, and are not shipped across the planet just to be used once then tossed. Common Ground stocks real treasure.
Eventually, Common Ground will be a strong link in the local network of environmentally concerned people and organizations. It will be a wonderful day when we help connect some source of local waste with a use, then train people to produce whatever that item is, creating living wage jobs. I envision bus stops, or greenhouses, made of plastic bottles collected in the community. Other communities have come together to raise funds for schools by collecting Capri Sun drink pouches and sewing them into lunch totes. There are models for this and more available.
Since losing my hard hat—unfortunately I did not think to turn it into a planter or a lampshade first—I have also been deeply rewarded by renewed connections with women. In the past, being invited to a social event with my former coworkers often meant something like participating in a sporting clay shoot. I’m not knocking that—being one of the guys can be fun—but it has been a real homecoming to mix in some skirts with the jeans, wear earrings, and to feel the nurturing and support of a circle of close women. In any period of hard times, women are the ones who pick up the pieces, knit communities back together, keep the home fires burning, and provide measures of civilization and hope. It will be particularly rewarding when Common Ground is able to provide opportunities and support to women, who still so often lag behind in economic equality.       
I believe it is not just possible, but necessary, to again become the sort of culture that makes honest, creative use of what is around us to ensure a sustainable quality of life for all; to live connected to one another rather than in isolation; and to reverse course from rampant consumerism.  All this means collecting more than upcycled art; it means a continuing conversation. Here is an invitation to stop by the shop and share your thoughts and experience. Together we have the power to affect change.

Donna Bogren started her working life as a construction laborer when that was far from an ordinary career path for women, eventually working her way up the ladder into contract management. Thirty years later, she has discovered a new passion that doesn’t require steel-toed shoes. Bogren is into trash; or better said, into reducing it and its impact by upcycling.
Her shop, Common Ground, is located at 97 Weaverville Rd. in Woodfin, and is open Thurs-Sat from 10-6. You may contact her via Common Ground’s Facebook page, or via email at

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker