Artists Learning Lessons From Their Own Plastic Art

BlogHer Original Post

Where should fake plastic fish live? In a Plastiquarium, of course!

David Edgar plastic fish art

Since creating my blog, Fake Plastic Fish, about plastic pollution, I've had the privilege of interviewing a growing segment of artists working in plastic to bring awareness to issues of plastic pollution, waste, and consumer culture. Here are a few gems I've discovered.

David Edgar's Plastiquarium

The Plastiquarium mythology:

The Plastiquarium is immersed in mystery. Modern myth suggests that a century of increasing phosphate levels in Earth’s marine environment caused new, synthetic life forms to emerge. As recyclable HDPE plastic containers spread concentrates of consumer product pollutants, the Plastiquarium creatures evolved in the image of their packaging forebearers.

David Edgar and I had a long and thought-provoking conversation about art and materials and consumerism. And he told me more about the evolution of the Plastiquarium species, explaining that pollutants in the plastic containers (mostly laundry detergent bottles) are triggering new forms of life that mimic the packaging that spreads the pollutants in the first place. Just as we carry the memory of our forefathers, they carry the memory of the products that triggered their strange mutations.

Collecting the plastic: With full support of the local recycling center, David takes walks through the neighborhood dragging behind him a 4-foot length of cord, to which he attaches all the colorful detergent bottles he finds in residents’ recycle bins.

collecting plastic detergent bottles for art

Lesson from art: Originally, David would remove the labels from the bottles. But eventually, he realized that the labels were a further layer of comment on our consumer-oriented society. He learned to listen to what his materials had to teach him.

David and his wife Robin have put together a beautiful art/craft book, titled Fantastic Recycled Plastic: 30 Clever Creations to Spark Your Imagination, based on not only the Plastiquarium but other plastic creations like birds, insects, and flowers, as well as the work of other artists in the recycled plastic medium. What’s more, the beginning sections of the book explain the history of plastic as well as problems with plastic recycling and environmental issues. In fact, there is a whole page about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Dianna Cohen

Dianna CohenDianna Cohen is a painter, but she doesn't use a paint brush. Trained at UCLA, she gave up the brush for materials most people consider trash: bags, boxes, little pieces of plastic. This year, she helped to found the Plastic Pollution Coalition. After 20 years, she finally started to get the messages from her own art.

Dianna first starting working with plastic bags after visiting a homeopathic shop in Belgium that provided bags with colorful flowers printed on them. She noticed the irony of the natural image against the synthetic material and began creating collages from plastic bags, arranging the printed text and images to create messages that even she didn't always understand.

Dianna Cohen

After about eight years of working with plastic, she noticed that some of the materials had begun to crack and flake, leaving tiny pieces of plastic inside their frames.

Dianna Cohen

Lesson from art: Like David, it took Dianna a while to see what her materials wanted to teach her. Dismayed that her art was not as archival as she once thought, Dianna changed her perspective and began to realize that the disintegration of the plastic was part of the message of the piece. While plastic molecules might last forever in the environment, the plastic products themselves can break down into smaller and smaller pieces, releasing their chemicals and doing even more damage than if they remained intact.

Since then, Dianna has become more active in working to stem the tide of waste, especially plastic pollution. A co-founder of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, Dianna's mission as an artist has evolved into activist as well.

The Plastic Wave

Kathleen Egan -- surfer, artist, and environmental activist -- heads up SF Surfrider's Plastics Subcommittee, which is working to end the plague of plastic pollution in our oceans.

Her giant plastic wave sculpture, as well as her other plastic collage works, were inspired by all the plastic she noticed in the oceans while surfing and on beaches all over the world. Asking her other Surfrider buddies to contribute bottles and other forms of plastic trash over a 2-week period to make the wave, Kathleen made an astounding discovery.

Lesson from art: Even people active in the environmental movement still generate tons of plastic waste without realizing it. All of her friends were astounded at the amount of plastic they were able to amass. In fact, there was more than enough to create the wave. The project taught everyone involved to look at their own personal habits.

In a conversation with Kathleen, she compared surfing to the environmental movement. When you surf,

“You are where you are. You have to go through the waves to get out and through the waves again to get back in.”

It’s a metaphor, not only for life, but for the environmental movement and for finding ways to live sustainably. There are no shortcuts. My interpretation: we can’t wait for some miracle technology to save us from the mess we’ve made. Each of us must do our part, every day. We can’t bypass the waves; we have to go through them.

Curating the Plastic Beach

Artists Judith Selby and Richard Lang were both making art out of plastic when they met in 1999. Living near Kehoe Beach, part of the Point Reyes National Seashore in Northern California, they discovered that they didn't have to travel to Midway Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to discover plastic beach pollution. Because of ocean currents, Kehoe has become another hot spot for the world's trash.

plastic beach trash

Spending their weekends mining the beach for materials for their art, Judith and Richard are quite a couple. In fact, after being together for a while, they decided to tie the knot… at Burning Man, where Judith wore a gorgeous white dress made completely from plastic trash.

plastic wedding dress at Burning Man

At a visit to their home a few weeks ago, I was privileged to view some of their fantastic creations.

Like David Edgar, they too have a fake plastic fish:

plastic mosaic lamp

As well as other 3D sculptures:

plastic art

plastic art

Lesson from art: Like Kathleen, Judith and Richard learned from the sheer volume of the plastic on the beach that the plastic pollution problem cannot be solved by cleaning up the plastic after the fact. There is way too much of it coming in every day. We have to work to stem the tide at the source, by reducing our consumption of plastic products and seeking alternatives. They are now regular contributors to the Plastic Pollution Coalition's blog.

Other bloggers writing about art make from plastic waste:

Leila Darabi at Every Day Trash

Ruby Reusable's Olympia Dumpster Divers blog

Sarah Bayles at The Daily Ocean

Beth Terry: attempting to live plastic-free and blogging the heck out of it at Follow her on Twitter or become a fan of Fake Plastic Fish on Facebook.


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