Following the success of our glass bottles, The Seven Stages of Degradation (shown at the Royal Academy Summer show and other exhibitions, see the other post), and the prototype ‘Ghostnet Chandelier’ at the London Design Festival 2018 (see this post too), this installation piece continued to develop our ideas around the theme of ocean plastic. Working with Louis Thompson once again and with hand-blown glass and waste glass fragments, found ocean plastic from Hawaii and other beaches around the world and recovered ghost nets this piece references the chaotic beauty of an entangles ghost net being pulled out from the deep ocean. These hand-crafted colourful objects represent a horrific future that our Anthropocene age threatens to leave behind if we do nothing about our dependency on plastic and its easy disposability.
Marine litter is one of the clearest symbols of a resource inefficient economy. These objects that litter our beaches and impact our environment should be captured for their value before the reach the seas and create problems, but this currently does not happen at the scale required. Adopting a more circular approach, which puts emphasis on; designing systems that prevent waste and encourage recovery of valuable materials, designing products that use materials that can easily be recycled and reused, and simplifying the use of plastics, especially in packaging would be the most effective solution for marine litter.
The plastic fragments used in this series were collected in 2014 on a trip to Kamilo beach, Hawaii. This remote beach (also known by the locals as Trash Beach) sees the results of the global plastic waste tragedy wash up onto its shore every day on every tide. The amount of plastic-to-sand ratio is shocking. Everywhere you look plastic is present, deep in the fabric of the beach and seemingly almost impossible to extract. Everything picked up had a story; a journey from Japan after the Tsunami or from the landfills of the USA. There are snatches of words on bottles bleached by the sun. Some plastic had been in the sea under the hot UV sun so long it turned to powder when touched.
Using these fragments along with images of microplastic swirling around the ocean gyres as inspiration the pair created work using waste glass to illustrate this chaos and intrusion into the natural environment. The creation of each vessel starts with picking a plastic ocean waste fragment to inform the shape.
This is followed by a process of gathering and adding waste glass, shaping and blowing. Some of the waste shards are engraved and enamelled with illustrations of seas, nets and packaging details. The piece is completed by the addition of the original plastic piece.
Using images of fragments of plastic swirling around the ocean gyres as inspiration these large vessels use waste glass fragments to illustrate their chaos and intrusion into the natural environment. The creation of each vessel starts with picking a plastic ocean waste fragment that will inform the shape. This is followed by a process of gathering and adding waste glass, shaping and blowing. Some of the waste shards have been engraved and enamelled with illustrations of nets, seas and ships. The piece is completed by the addition of the original plastic piece.
These smaller hand-blown glass bottles have waste glass fragments melted into the surface, clinging on like the barnacles attached to floating plastic in the gyres. Pieces of the waste glass are etched and enamelled with illustrations of ocean currents and fragments of nets. Each piece has a bottle top recovered from oceans around the world referencing the bottle’s once useful life.
The work was shown all together in a large installation called Broken Ocean at the 2019 Collect Open. Broken Ocean used nearly a ton of salvaged ghost nets, pulled out of the ocean by Surfers Against Sewage and represented the rubbish truckload of plastic that enters our oceans every minute. The installation won the prestigious Collect Open award.
Having spent over 20 years developing a creative career in graphic design and one that is dominated by the surface and two dimensions, I often crave making things that venture truly into 3D. My attempts so far have had varying degrees of success; a ceramics course led me to do all the glazes and patterns whilst others more successfully threw the pots, and when working in spaces I tend to gravitate towards building objects from decorative flat plains. But I feel the need to be more sculptural and have continued to look for ways to do it.
One such opportunity came through a past studio project. The glass artist Louis Thompson and I became friends when Thomas.Matthews was commissioned to create a set of awards for Arts & Business in 2012. (https://thomasmatthews.com/project/artsbusiness-awards-2012-throphy/)From that point, Louis and I continued conversations about possible collaborations. I talked to Louis about my research on plastic pollution and my personal collection of broken plastic pieces, picked up from beaches around the world. Handles, lids, bottles and tops, yoghurt pots and fishing net knots. Louis discussed his work in glass, amazing pieces of art of incredible colour, created with technical skill and precision.
Inevitably, as designer and artist collaborate, the conversation went back and forth around what we were creating and why. As a designer, I need to have reason – a brief or narrative behind the work, but Louis was more relaxed about this, focusing on the form and the how we could make. This was probably where I leant an important lesson – to let go and just start making.
I have blown glass before, though nothing like these pieces. I’ve made the requisite bauble and paperweight and was comfortable in a ‘hot shop’ – a very different environment from my tame studio desk. This the heart of a glass workshop with the furnaces that heat to 1300 celcius, benches and kilns. (When I asked if any special clothing should be worn, the answer was shorts and tshirt – the hot shop lives up to its name and you seriously sweat!). A workshop like this exudes creativity, you can’t stand there and do nothing, you have to make. And the nature of the raw material – hot molten glass – means that once you start the process you have to see it through in one go, no teabreak halfway even if your work take hours to create.
The pieces took shape over a series of weeks created specifically for the ‘Synergy II’ show at London Glassblowing Studio, set up by Peter Layton on Bermondsey street (https://londonglassblowing.co.uk/). After a couple of creative brainstorm sessions, we decided on developing a number of ideas based on the statistics and my collection, and the techniques Louis described. We wanted to create messages in bottles. Because we could not mix plastic into the molten glass we looked for other things to represent the flotsam and jetsam in the ocean.
Louis collected waste coloured glass from all the artworks created in the hot shop in the weeks before. We made twisted knots of glass rope, carefully matching the colours of the discarded pieces I had picked up.
The process of making the series of bottles for ‘The seven stages of degradation’ was very hands on in the hot shop. Each bottle was created from the inside out with a general idea of what the outcome could look like.
We prepared the elements, sticking waste shards onto a blob of molten clear glass, then repeating the process of re-heating, dipping and rolling in coloured chips and strands (to represent the breakdown of plastic into smaller and smaller pieces). Colour, one of the most seductive things about glass for me, was chosen very carefully for each stage; very little red or yellow in the end, as these would have been consumed by ocean creatures, mistaken for plankton. A certain amount of chemical knowledge is required as different colours made by the added elements react to each other, for instance creating a metallic effect or a yellow halo. You can’t see this when you are making a piece as molten glass is just all red-hot, that’s why you need an expert collaborator.
The last dip into the clear liquid glass was then expertly rolled and formed into a bottle shape, even with the rounded bottom, before being switched onto another rod and then given a neck for the tops to fit onto. And once we had our perfect bottle shape we took a wooden paddle to them and deformed them, aggressively recreating the twisted shapes of plastic bottles found on beaches around the world after they have been bashed on rocks or chewed by sea creatures.
The second series we created is called ‘Scrimshaw Bottle Tusks’ which reference the art of scrimshaw first developed by the American whalers more than 200 years ago when they created intricate carvings on sperm whale teeth during the long, monotonous days at sea.
Sailors who worked on whaling ships had a ready supply of ivory and bone. Many whaling voyages could last three, four or even five years, and several weeks or even months would pass between whale sightings. Without something to occupy their time the seamen may well have gone stir crazy in the cramped quarters and poor living conditions aboard these ships. (Where the word “Scrimshaw” actually came from is unknown but it probably derived from the Dutch or English nautical slang expression meaning “to waste time.” )
Each bottle tusk was blown by Louis in dark blue glass with a coating of white and ivory glass powders. They too have bottle bottoms like a litre bottle and where sailors used needles, knives, and other carving tools to etch their designs adding lampblack, tobacco juice, or ink to make them more distinctive, ours were line-drawn with an engraver into the glass surface and the lines were then filled with black enamel and put back into the kiln to melt in and set.
Every pieces of old scrimshaw holds its own history, story and intrinsic value. Stories of epic whaling battles, mythical sea creatures, commemorative sea voyages and the sailor’s ships were popular motifs. Our collaborative scrimshaw inspired objects are etched with imaginary visual records of future seas. Polluted by man-made waste, oceans rich with toxic plastics and littered with our unwanted detritus, we are contributing to the destruction of our natural planet. Stories from future sailors from 2050 that illustrate the state of the seas if we carry on business as usual there will be more plastic in our oceans than finfish in weight.
Making objects in glass taught me a lot about process and sequence. It was all really hands on – where we literally shaped the pieces as the molten glass cooled. Making objects like this was incredibly tactile and instinctive. There may be parallels in running a business but even a design studio can be very process driven. If you don’t keep yourself doing, making, creating you can get very frustrated. When I returned to my desk with the paperwork, email trails, contracts and excel spreadsheets I vowed to make sure I kept the creativity freeflowing and collaborated as much as possible. It seems its all about finding the right balance.
This article first appeared on the Creative Review blog, January 2018.