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It was 1986, and Cleve Overton and his partner, Jude Andreasen, were living in Kikwit, a town in what was then Zaire that rests in what epidemiologists refer to as the cradle of Ebola. Andreasen, who works with the Environmental Protection Agency, was helping the Peace Corps direct agricultural programs. Overton, then a 57-year-old artist based in Staten Island, was there for a little R&R.

“There’s no electricity; you go to bed when it’s dark,” he says. “You eat what’s there. Now, I don’t eat a lot of meat, but they had meat, so I ate meat.” In Zaire, Overton quickly learned, nothing goes to waste. He watched in awe as enterprising locals turned sheets of shoe rubber into saddles and aluminum cans into lamps and suitcases, letting his mind turn over the artistic possibilities of recycling.

But a vicious prostate infection soon had him focusing on more immediate matters. “I couldn’t pee, I was blown up, and they thought I had malaria,” he recalls. The antimalarial drugs just made him sicker. “I really thought I was going to die, which is not a good feeling….It’s—I’m not really prepared to tell you how emotional that really is.” Overton was shipped to a veterans’ hospital in New York, where he spent four months recovering.

Nonetheless, Africa stayed with him. “If you move from New York to Africa, your life changes, your body changes, the person changes,” he says. “You have to change, because if you don’t you’ll perish. Africa doesn’t tolerate fools.” When he was back in good health, Overton moved with Andreasen to Washington. Over the following years, he set aside the woodcuts, ceramics, and abstract metal sculptures that previously composed his oeuvre and concentrated on collecting trash near his Brookland house.

“I’d go along the street and pick up radios and things that in Africa just didn’t happen [to be lying around],” he says. He created artworks from metal signs, sections of skis, plastic power-outlet covers, and hunks of other refuse. Then he found the dumpster at Columbia Woodworking on Brentwood Road NE, and before long his pieces were bedecked with panels of mahogany, plywood, and hand-bleached oak, with ornate furniture spindles jutting out like building spires.

Four years ago, Overton moved into electronics waste. His sometimes haphazard assemblages evolved to mirror the precision-made nature of their materials: They became city maps of intimidating orderliness, with distinguishable byways and industrial and commercial zones. Laid in complex geometric patterns and veined with wiring, each city’s infrastructure suggests a creative cross between Louise Nevelson’s abstract sculptures and H.R. Giger’s visions of alien technology.

When creating his works, Overton gets completely lost in his mental Africa. A gag clock on his workroom wall features numbers that lie in a jumble at the timepiece’s base; across its face, bold capital letters read, “WHO CARES???” “I have a watch, but I don’t wear it,” says Overton. “There were things I had to give up.”

Time was one of his discards, society another. “I haven’t seen anybody this week except people from the Giant Food store,” he says. “The only thing I do [outside] is pick up the mail and read the newspaper.”

Overton’s house is divided into two distinct levels. Downstairs is the “physical” level, where he’s building cityscapes for a September show at the downtown office of HNTB architects. At the moment, though, we’re upstairs, in the “mental” realm.

Overton spends his mornings upstairs, sketching, writing a book about his childhood in New York, and studying his neighbors through the windows with an artist’s detached curiosity. Right now, however, he’s flitting about the living room in aggravation, fuming a bit at my biographical questions. Overton doesn’t see the utility of talking about his past. He flops down on a sofa in a far corner, picks up a bag of spices Andreasen bought in Cameroon this month, and examines it with fierce concentration.

“My environmental views have an influence on him,” offers Andreasen, “but we’ve always had similar opinions of waste and how better to recycle the sources we have in this country.” The two grew up on Staten Island, she says, next to one of the nation’s largest dumps, the 3,000-acre Fresh Kills Landfill. Andreasen unsuccessfully lobbied against its expansion onto the island’s green spaces and salt flats in the late ’70s. Overton also had a stake in keeping the garbage away: He was stocking his Earthworks Studio and Gallery with clay from the island’s dirt roads.

Andreasen is ready with an environmentalist take on Overton’s cityscapes, too: “These [pieces] represent modern cities, which are basically technological centers,” she says. “These are what produce computers and electronic equipment, which eventually become the problem of waste and waste management.” Since the couple moved to tech-heavy D.C., she says, “We’d see all these computers, trashed. And a lot of landfills won’t take them, because there’s so many toxic things.”

Computer and television monitors contain several pounds of lead in their screen glass, Andreasen explains. There is toxic cadmium in rechargeable laptop batteries, carcinogenic dust in toner cartridges, and hazardous mercury, chromium, and flame retardants in other computer parts. The labor involved in sorting and neutralizing all these hazmats makes electronics recycling a difficult and often wallet-draining venture.

For this reason, many waste-management facilities ship their electronics refuse abroad. Overseas, laborers burn piles of machines to extract their wires and ravage circuit boards with acid to collect traces of gold. Workers seldom wear protective equipment, leaving their bodies exposed to noxious dioxin and hydrocarbon gases released from melting plastics. When the matter of disposal finally comes up, the debris is often tossed in waterways, polluting drinking water.

Although the EPA has an electronics-waste-disposal program, says Andreasen, it doesn’t get much attention from the Bush administration. “Homeland security is the big emphasis; recycling computer parts isn’t,” she says. “The government isn’t going to do anything unless—”

“People like me get out there and start showing them up!” interrupts Overton. Now that we’re more or less talking about art, he’s on comfortable ground. “Art, to me, is not all pretty pictures,” he says. “I think art is a voice—could be a very powerful voice.” And because Overton doesn’t get out much, his voice must carry far: “My art will say something to people I’ll never speak to.”

Creating cities built completely out of trash could be construed as an expression of either anger or of hope, depending on who’s interpreting. Overton himself is reluctant to commit to any one interpretation. He fears that by chasing theory he might lose touch with his Africa-imparted mind-set.

“Before, I wore a whole different armor,” he says. “Now I think I’m more vulnerable because I don’t have any armor. I wouldn’t be afraid of you; I think I could probably beat you up. Now I’m more afraid of people altering the way I think and what I do.”

The yellow stairs descending into Overton’s workshop are dangerously steep and have bruise-inducing metal corners. He made them at his brother’s fabricating shop on Staten Island and shipped them to D.C. when he moved.

The bulk of the space furnishes real estate for sheets of greenish copper and scraps of mahogany, glass, plastic, and steel. In 2000, he spent months engineering a philanthropic scheme to mail the contents of Columbia Woodworking’s dumpster to cities throughout Africa, whose artisans he presumed would jump at the chance to use unfamiliar wood scraps. He went through hundreds of dollars of his own money and called in several African contacts before reluctantly dropping the plan, stymied by logistical problems.

“I was reading in a paper today that the D.C. government spends a million dollars a year to have a lot where they transport automobiles,” Overton says. “I can’t understand this: In Africa, cars go nowhere. People take them apart with hacksaws, screwdrivers, and do something with them. The only thing you may see is the carcass, like the bones of an animal laying out.”

Back in the late ’80s, Overton had to comb the streets of Brookland for solitary fax machines and CPUs. Now he’s well-known enough in the neighborhood that people call him up to offer tributes of cast-off electronics. When the mood to work strikes him, all he has to do is walk down the stairs, grab a monitor or CD player from a storage room, and drag it outside to his driveway killing floor.

There, Overton dons goggles, a respirator, and protective earmuffs. He turns on his workshop boombox and advances on the hapless machine with a screwdriver, hammer, or electric grinder. The procedure is private: “If I’m talking to people, they annoy me….I’m on my trip,” he says.

Overton digs out screws, cracks open seams, and cuts through wires to expose the device’s multitudinous and colorful innards. These he pulls out and stacks in a pile, which he later washes down with a solution of trisodium phosphate. Then he shelves his tools and rests, pondering various combinations of form and color.

Once a rough idea jells in his head, Overton readies his base, typically a slab of three-sixteenth-inch plywood. He reaches into his pile of offal and selects choice scraps—the laser eye of a CD reader, perhaps, or a processor chip with its hundreds of tiny silver legs—and attaches them to the wood with glue, wire, and screws.

As he works, disparate parts of the assemblage begin to establish relationships. A flat silicon chip slashed with lines of solder, suggesting perhaps a parking lot, connects via wires to a fat resistor, part of a network of larger components that could be cooling towers or smokestacks. Empty spaces weaving among these tubes indicate roads leading to another part of town rife with heat-sink high-rises. When the city is finished, Overton sometimes coats it with spray paint, sealing it in a ghost white or gunmetal gray.

It takes Overton months of meticulous arranging to complete a 4-foot-square cityscape. So far, only one, a Sept. 11 tribute depicting the shell of the fallen Twin Towers with twisted wire and the vented sides of a computer monitor, has been exhibited publicly, at Massachusetts’ Fitchburg Art Museum. None of the pieces have been sold.

But that hasn’t dampened Overton’s enthusiasm for making them. “I worked on this sucker until Jude said, ‘What are you doing down there? Don’t you come up to pee?’” he says, indicating a piece intended for his September show. “You have to be manic. This is not something normal people do.” CP