This spring I returned to the Sea Change series of sculpture and assemblage pieces using recycled and reclaimed marine plastics, monofilament, fishing tackle, and textiles made from plastic bags. Though at first glance these pieces may seem a bit unrelated to my painting and drawing, I am finding they address many of the same concepts and incorporate similar themes as I have been approaching in more abstract images.
In this series of posts, I will make some notes on the overall process and discuss some of the in-progress, planned, and completed pieces in terms of inspiration, concept, and materials.
I Heard the Ocean from My Bed – detail view
When I start planning a painting or drawing, I often begin with a color sense and an overall feeling that I’d like to explore, either drawn from a specific source like the way leaves unfold from a plant or from a conceptual place, like what it feels like to want to protect someone you love. At some point as I work through preliminary sketches or initial layers, the whole image coalesces in my mind as a more or less completely-formed being, and I see the rest of the painting process as an attempt to capture its likeness. It’s a bit like portraiture in that sense, only chasing a face seen in passing glances, always changing the way it looks back.
Making textiles from plastic bags
By contrast, in the Sea Change pieces I start almost entirely with the materials, thinking about what they can do and how that might look. I’m having a great time exploring their tactile qualities and physical behaviors. I have enjoyed various forms of needlecraft since I was a child, so it was a natural fit to use these pieces of plastic as textiles and incorporate sewing, knitting, needlepoint, weaving, and embroidery in making images. Sewing pieces together and to their supports has also given me a structurally sound means of connection that doesn’t use adhesives or rely on melting the plastics to fuse them, which pleases me both environmentally and in terms of art conservation methodology. I also enjoy the connection to tradition and the “women’s work” aspect of these techniques, as women are disproportionately affected by climate change and damage to the environment. Communicating through works of art using techniques previously reserved for frivolity or decoration – which kept women occupied, but not engaged – feels like reclaiming these techniques in a symbolic form of ecofeminism.
Gyre – detail view
Visually, I’ve been strongly drawn to Sacred Geometry and spiritual symbols lately. These shapes, patterns, and images feel meaningfully connected to the Earth, as they were literally discovered in our attempts to understand our place in the universe, communicated through geometry. I am attracted to the universality of these symbols, which are not tied to language or conscious thought, and that has led me to further explore modern symbology through ISO warning and safety signs. These ideas and symbols are all swirling together into a language to talk about nature and our relationship to the natural world, using these recycled plastic materials and traditional needlecraft techniques.
Palette of plastics used in Blue-Green Fibonacci (in progress)
Blue-Green Fibonacci is an in-progress piece that began when I received a shipment cushioned with bags of sealed air. These bags are presented as an environmentally-friendly alternative to styrofoam, bubblewrap, or packing peanuts. Some are branded under cute names with “Eco,” “Recycle,” and “Defender” included, and they are all printed with symbols either indicating they are recyclable or in very rare cases, made from partially recycled plastic themselves. Some are clear plastic with a bit of ink, while others are opaque dyed plastic in shades of blue or blue-green presumably meant to evoke eco-friendliness. If a shipping recipient has access to Plastic #2 (HDPE) or plastic film recycling, they could theoretically recycle these bags. New York City residential pick-up does not accept anything besides rigid plastics (symbols 4 & 5) and including soft plastics could cause a whole load to be rejected. So realistically, most people do what I was instructed to do at my last job – pierce the bags to deflate them and squish them into the trash.
Once they enter the waste stream, plastic bags and films are much more likely than other forms of trash to escape from landfills to rivers and oceans because they can be blown by the air, carried by streams of rain water, and they tend to cling to anything they touch. They are swallowed by turtles, fish, and marine birds, and they attract and aggregate other petroleum-based pollutants in the sea. They are a non-biodegradable nightmare for the environment, and they are contributing to the rapidly-growing garbage patches in the sea.
Blue-Green Fibonacci – detail view
I thought about how to transform them from something harmful to something that celebrates the beauty and cleverness of nature. I cut the bags into loops, which I then linked together to create balls of “plarn” or plastic yarn. When converted to a textile and measured in yards, I was stunned to see just how much plastic each strip of air pillows contained. I saved the air pillows from the handful of shipments I’ve received in the past few months, and I created a palette of blues and greens, which I then knit into stripes based on the Fibonacci sequence, a system of order seen again and again in the natural world. I’ve made several strips of stripes exploring various color and width juxtapositions. Once the striped sections are sewn together and connected to a support, the overall piece should measure 24″x30″, which happens to be one of my most frequently-used canvas sizes in painting.
I am fascinated by the materials and process in this series, and I very much look forward to discussing more pieces in future posts!