You’ve seen recycled art before – those tractor parts that come to life as goofy dogs or mosaics made out of plastic bottle caps.
Some of it aims to be serious artwork. Some of it aims only to be cute. Some of it falls in the middle of the spectrum. And all of it gives us a good feeling, knowing that someone, somewhere is taking the detritus of modern life and reusing it in a meaningful way.
But if asked to name the media best suited for awe-inspiring artistic endeavors, our minds might still trend toward the old standards – paint, plaster, clay, stone, glass. We support the reduce-reuse-recycle ethos and, as a result, tend to think of recycled art as function over form.
Cue multimedia artist Aurora Robson. She uses plastic bottles – thousands of them – and creates sensual, ethereal sculptures that are at once powerful and delicate.
She even made one specifically for Columbus – Quality of Mercy, on display now at Franklin Park Conservatory. And the reactions it’s getting go well beyond mere satisfaction with the act of recycling.
“What’s exciting to me is the practice of exploring potential, hidden potential, because this material is constantly changing,” says Robson. “There are sculptures I made four or five years ago that I’ll never be able to make again because the people who are manufacturing the bottles have changed their designs.”
Because of that, Robson’s work is constantly evolving.
Anything written about Robson will tell you she is an artist who is committed to interrupting the waste stream, which makes her a natural fit to show at the conservatory. It is her first exhibition at a botanical garden and her largest exhibition to date.
“Her message is about sustainability, it’s about fighting pollution, it’s about protecting natural resources,” says Ellen Grevey, audience services director at Franklin Park Conservatory.
A variety of Robson’s sculptures will be on display at the conservatory Sept. 9 through April 2013.
“It’s really important to me to do this piece in Columbus because most people think of this problem as only a shoreline issue,” Robson says.
A significant amount of pollution comes from rivers, she says, and “all rivers lead to the ocean.” This project therefore focuses on the less recognized sources of pollution.
But just for a minute, forget the well-crafted (and much needed) message of cleaning up the planet, lest it eclipse the art.
For now, just look at the work. It is transformative on so many levels.
Robson is not merely re-using plastic bottles. Embracing them like precious lost souls, she first cleans the bottles. She then contemplates their shapes and cuts them to achieve different structural forms.
It’s challenging to cut smooth transitions and curves, but with a little practice, Robson and her helpers – in this case, students from the Columbus College of Art and Design – find confidence with the material. Robson likens the transition of the materials to social change itself because “that really occurs usually in almost gradual and perceptible little steps.”
Then Robson finds ways to marry various shapes together to make repetitive forms that serve as the basis for the larger work. She and the students use onomatopoeia shorthand to keep the building blocks categorized; their dialogue is punctuated with words like sporbs, scrapples, bugles and ruffled rattails.
The atmosphere in the working room at Franklin Park Conservatory where Robson and the students created Quality of Mercy – made from 1,030 plastic bottles gleaned from the Glen Echo Ravine in Clintonville that currently hangs in the Himalayan Biome – is like walking into an adult kindergarten class where playful experimentation is both bountiful and sacred.
Though Robson is a multimedia artist – she has taught photography and welding and also enjoyed great success with her two-dimensional paper collages made entirely out of recycled junk mail – she is also a student.
“I try to study things that are inarguably positive,” she says, “taking negative energy and redirecting it.” Biology is one such area of study for her.
The shape of Quality of Mercy seems organic and familiar, and Robson says she was influenced by the structure of the brain in the making of the piece.
“To experience either needing mercy or giving mercy, you kind of have to make an intellectual decision,” she says.
Wondering how mercy might look while pulsing through the neurons and synapses of the brain, she made sketches and patterns to use in crafting the whole sculpture. The pink color and the undulating movement suggest delicacy, while the form seems to be open and anticipating a powerful energy.
“To me, mercy comes from the sweetest part of a human being,” Robson says.
Looking at her body of work, one is reminded of the body itself – maps of the nervous system and veins and arteries, the ebb and flow of the life forces within us. The shapes are lush, playful, universal, sensual and effervescent.
By using materials that could wreak environmental damage and transforming them into alluring forms that feel so very familiar to our own existence, Robson has connected us gracefully and tangibly to one another and to the world in which we live.
And that is where her message of interrupting the waste stream becomes so powerful and so different than what we have heard before. It is a message that has never been this inspiring or simply beautiful to experience.
“Polyethylene terephthalate is designed to last anywhere from 100 to 1,000 years,” Robson says, guaranteeing a nearly inexhaustible supply of material for her work.
It makes one want to pick up plastic bottles to see what magic Robson can make with them.
Cindy Gaillard is the Executive Producer of WOSU Public Media’s Emmy Award-winning program ArtZine. Find new episodes on Facebook.