Collecting Microplastics in Western Australia

After over a year between visits I recently made the trip home to Western Australia for my childhood friend’s wedding as well as my grandmother’s 80th Birthday. I love living in Adelaide and am truly grateful for all the opportunities it has to offer as well as the fantastic friends I have made but gee it’s nice to go home sometimes! It’s great to catch up with everyone and spend time in the place where my love affair with beach combing began. I feel so connected to the environment in WA and when I am home, I always make an effort to travel down to my favourite beaches to take the dog (and usually some unsuspecting friend or relative) for a walk to comb the shore line for plastic gems. 

Collecting micro plastic for my exhibition pieces always leaves me with contradicting emotions. On the one hand, the process of searching through the sand in front of the beautiful ocean is peaceful and meditative. It is like a never ending treasure hunt where there is always something new to discover and I am absolutely elated when I find my next precious plastic jewel. I love the way the ocean wears the pieces of plastic beyond recognition, leaving only a trace of the original item. On the other hand, I am horrified that these tiny fragments of plastic are being ingested by beautiful sea creatures and destroying the ocean with toxic chemicals as they break down. 

A handful of toxic treasures. I have a love/hate relationship with the beautifully weathered microplastics I collect along the shoreline.

A handful of toxic treasures. I have a love/hate relationship with the beautifully weathered microplastics I collect along the shoreline.

My home town is Fremantle and given our close proximity to the busy port, I never have to search too far to find a whole bunch of junk washed up on the beach. In my local area, the best beach for plastics is Port Beach, just north of the Swan River mouth. Around this time of year, seaweed lines the shores and invariably, under ever single clump, lies a trove of deadly treasure. 

Port Beach, just north of Fremantle, Western Australia, just after sunset. It is a beautiful, quiet beach which is constantly choked by discarded plastics.

Port Beach, just north of Fremantle, Western Australia, just after sunset. It is a beautiful, quiet beach which is constantly choked by discarded plastics.

When I collect, I first scour the surface as I walk, removing the larger items that I see. It is not often that I keep this part of the collection as it mainly consists of discarded water bottles, take away cups, lost sunglasses and thongs (flip flops for those in the UK), or used dog poo bags. Yuck! I collect it all up, discard the dog poo bags and take the rest with me to sort and recycle at home rather than using the beach bins which go straight to landfill. From there I get down onto the sand, inevitably doing several hundred squats and lunges, lifting each mound of seaweed to reveal tiny fragments of plastic as I go. I scour through the seaweed, pray to the gods that a dog hasn’t marked its territory on each mound, then collect my precious bounty.

Port Beach in North Fremantle, Western Australia, is regretably one of the best beaches to collect microplastics that I have found so far. Each clump of seaweed hides an abundance of deadly plastic jewels.

After many hours spent gathering plastics and removing whatever nasty rubbish I can, I go home to clean and sort the collection. I remove and recycle the large pieces I don’t need, then wash the plastic fragments using water and a sieve. I dry the fragments and sort them into different containers depending on size. The large pieces which are interesting enough to avoid the recycling bin are kept aside. I often like the look of these bits as they are more recognisable than their smaller plastic friends, however, have yet to release a range large enough to accommodate them, so into the studio hoard they go. Small plastics range from around 5mm – 15mm and are kept for my Plastic Soup Sculptures. Microplastics, which range from 0.1mm to 5mm and are the most time consuming to find and most deadly to marine creatures as they are often mistaken for a tasty treat. These tiny specks are sorted into colour and reserved for Plastic Soup jewellery.

A handful of microplastics found at Port Beach, North Fremantle. Each piece is unique, deceptively beautiful and the perfect size for my  Plastic Soup  Adornment.

A handful of microplastics found at Port Beach, North Fremantle. Each piece is unique, deceptively beautiful and the perfect size for my Plastic Soup Adornment.

My Plastic Soup Sculptures and Adornment house only a minute proportion of the devastating quantities of plastic choking our oceans and shorelines. Given the drastic consequences our waste has on these fragile ecosystems, it seems crazy that we aren’t doing more. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the thought of tackling the world’s plastic issues but if everyone did their bit by rejecting single use plastic, using a bin and removing just a few pieces of rubbish when they went to the beach we could really start to make some improvements. 

A close up of one of my  Plastic Soup  brooches containing a tiny portion of the microplastics I found while beachcombing around the Western and South Australian coastline. Photograph courtesy of  Bianca Hoffrichter .

A close up of one of my Plastic Soup brooches containing a tiny portion of the microplastics I found while beachcombing around the Western and South Australian coastline. Photograph courtesy of Bianca Hoffrichter.

For more information on how you can make a difference, visit the fabulous crew at Take 3 on their website or @take3forthesea on Instagram. Originating in Sydney, Australia, Take 3 have started a wonderful community of likeminded beach combers from around the world who are doing their bit for our oceans and documenting it along the way.

Plastic Soup Sculptures in the Making

Exhibiting at Gray Street Workshop has definitely been a highlight of my year so far and after receiving some wonderful feedback and selling a few pieces, the show wrapped up last week. In celebration, we had an artist get together to see where the show might go next and it looks like we might take it on tour, adding new pieces to the collection, which is really exciting.

Making works for exhibition is one of my favourite pastimes as there are fewer limitations on time and money compared to production work. This means I can go nuts on detail! It is also a much more creative way of working and I feel more freedom to address concepts that I care about such as the environment.

For Solastalgia, I really wanted to use the opportunity to develop my work further. I have been making wearable Plastic Soup pieces for some time now to explore and engage people with the issue of excess plastics circulating our oceans. The response has been really positive, however, I have observed people struggling with the tiny scale of the work. Given their intimate location on the body, some people have been too shy to approach the pieces whilst others miss them altogether. In response to this, I wanted to experiment by removing the pieces from the body and increasing their size to see whether larger sculptural works would be more successful in engaging my audience.

The increase in scale I wanted to achieve meant that silver was no longer a viable material as is too soft and tricky to work with at that size. I needed to find a metal which would stay rigid and was also able to be coloured black to give the pieces that seaweedy feel. I began experimenting with mild steel which can be blackened with white vinegar, a product which is good for the environment and can be reused as a cleaning product. It sounded like a win-win to me! Working with steel was an enjoyable challenge and a welcomed variation from my regular work with precious materials.

Experimenting.... My first attempt at welding mild steel.  

To construct the sculptures, I began cutting various lengths of steel and finished each end to a blunt point which gave them a geometric feel.

Many sticks to cut = very dirty hands.

I then welded steel sticks together in pairs, intersecting them with other pairs to let the pieces take shape. I added more and more sticks until the shapes were completed then began working on steel boxes which were to contain the plastic fragments. I decided to make them using a range of different shaped and sized steel tubes and discovered a real difference in the quality of welded steel tube compared to the usual silver products I have grown accustomed to. I cut each tube to size and spent days grinding down the messy seams to give them the finer finish I required.

A whole bunch of steel tube slices fresh off the Brobo. They are really sharp and messy looking.

So many hours work to clean these guys up, but the end product was definitely worth it.

So many hours work to clean these guys up, but the end product was definitely worth it.

I then hand cut the acrylic ‘windows’ and gently filed them down to fit perfectly within the tubes.

Each piece of acrylic is covered in tape to protect the surface and numbered so that I know which box they fit into. The acrylic has to fit the inside of the boxes perfectly so that they stay in place without glue.

Many sleepless nights and an injured shoulder later, the tubes were welded in place and finally, construction was complete.

All done! Yay!

When making jewellery and sculpture, finish is as important as construction. A beautifully constructed piece can be completely ruined if it is not finished well. I wanted to avoid this by giving my sculptures an even sandblasted finish which was then blackened and waxed.

A beautifully sandblasted surface. After this stage I make sure that the sculptures are handled with cotton gloves to avoid contamination before I blacken them.

Dipping the sculptures into boiling hot vinegar. Though I thought I measured enough before I began, unfortunately this one didn't quite fit and luckily I had some spare vinegar to top it up!

With only a day to spare I prepared a variety of plastic fragments I had collected earlier, and set them in place. Phew!

My favorite part of the process is choosing the plastic fragments to go inside each box. These plastic jewels were collected at West Beach and Aldinga Beach in South Australia.

The final piece all blackened and set with plastic jewels.

The response to the sculptural pieces was encouraging and my audience were much more inclined to approach the works to have a good look around at the colourful plastic treasure they contained. Even more interesting was their response to the related jewellery I wore after seeing the sculptures. They could see the relationship between the two and It really helped to open up a dialogue about the ‘Plastic Soup’ phenomenon which was my ultimate goal.

I wore one of my brooches to the opening night of Solastalgia and it lead to some great conversations about climate change. My audience seemed to have much more of an appreciation for the tiny brooch once they had seen the sculptures.

Solastalgia at Gray Street Workshop

I was approached recently by contemporary jeweller and emerging curator, Jo Wilmot, to be in a group exhibition with the theme of climate change. Given how close the theme is to both my heart and work, I naturally jumped at the chance. Together with jo, contemporary jeweller, Leonie Westbrook and contemporary ceramicist, Lesa Farrant, we began working on a collection to be displayed at the intimate gallery space at Gray Street Workshop.

The exhibition with my work at the front, Leonie's to the left and Jo's to the right. Photograph courtesy of Catherine Truman.

After much contemplation, we agreed on a name for the show, Solastalgia, a term developed by Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht. “The word describes a form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change, such as mining or climate change... people exposed to environmental change experienced negative affects that are exacerbated by a sense of powerlessness or lack of control as the change occurs” 1 The term described perfectly the feeling of unease we all had in response to climate change, giving us a language to describe the distress we face given our current environmental situation.

Lesa Farrant's wall pieces with one of my sculptures tucked in there. Photograph courtesy of Leonie Westbrook.

Though we all started with a similar concept, it was inspiring to see how each artist approached the theme; applying their own skill, personal experience and passion for the issue.

Leonie Westbrook worked with a variety of materials, some discarded and others that she struggled to give away. During her research, Leonie discovered a rather concerning trend of people selling faux beach treasure which she was appalled by considering the abundance of rubbish already circulating our oceans. Her work for our show experimented with how domestic items could be reused and transformed. The results were subtle and beautiful.

Leonie Westbrook's beautiful installation. Photograph courtesy of Jo Wilmot.

Lesa Farrant spent her days combing her local beaches for plastic treasure, organic forms, noxious weeds and other items which had been introduced to the coastline. She then slip cast her bounty in delicate white porcelain, transforming what was once a pile of rubbish into stunning hybrid compositions.

One of Lesa Farrant's amazing porcelain compositions. Photograph courtesy of Catherine Truman.

Jo Wilmot collected impressions of sponges and seaweeds such as bull kelp, casting them in dark ‘oil slick black’ porcelain. Jo has been deeply troubled by the state of our oceans due to rising sea temperatures and used black to symbolise the resulted deadening of such beautiful lifeforms. She then set them within handmade brass ‘exhaust pipes.’ The pieces are magnificent and thought provoking.

Jo Wilmot's 'oil slick black' porcelain and brass looked striking against a freshly painted black wall. Photograph courtesy of Jo Wilmot.

I too spent time combing my local beaches and further explored the idea of how to display the deadly jewel-like plastics which are circulating our oceans. I used this opportunity to increase the scale of my pieces resulting in a tangle of steel seaweed and plastic which cast the most beautiful of shadows.

A close up of one of my steel and beach plastic sculptures. Photograph courtesy of  Jo Wilmot.

A close up of one of my steel and beach plastic sculptures. Photograph courtesy of Jo Wilmot.

The show opened at Gray Street Workshop, Adelaide, on Thursday the 30th of March, 2017, and closes on the 7th of May, 2017

.Follow the Solastalgia girls on Instagram to see works in progress and our future plans for the show @solastalgiaexhibition

 

1 https://www.nla.gov.au/content/solastalgia-extreme-weather-and-the-writer-s-role-in-a-climate-changed (accessed 25/04/17)