What is the history of the eco flowers?
December 2010 I decided to make my sister some flowers for Christmas. She's an avid recycler, and has been, for as long as I can remember, so I knew she would appreciate the energy behind the recycled plastic flower experiment. I also thought some winter blooms in her garden would help her survive the cold winter days. She loved them so much they never made it to the garden. In fact, she was the person who encouraged me to continue making them.
How and why is this your next artistic step?
Every two or three years I take a break from painting to explore other media and new ways to communicate visually. Last fall I decided to experiment with recycled plastics as a way of grappling with an overwhelming sense of materialism and commodity in my daily life. The first pieces were lively little explorations referencing nature but much more free form. Right away I realized how easily I could work around my children, meaning no chemicals and no messy studio. Not to mention they really have fun helping me find materials.
Do you see the flowers as a kind of sculpture?
I absolutely do. As a painter I deal with a two-dimensional plane which engages the viewer through image alone. A 360 degree, simultaneous view is a whole different game, not to mention the actual physicality of the flowers. I build each bloom assuming it will be viewed from all sides, as well as interact with other objects in a visual space. The blooms must have a certain amount of realism or recognition for someone to look at them and call them flowers, but there's a point when I make visual decisions that are right for the composition. Nature has balance and harmony, and so must art.
Explain the irony of plastics imitating nature
I have always loved being in nature...getting lost in my backyard as a child, gardening, hiking, bird watching as an adult. As an artist, it's no surprise that nature is my greatest inspiration. For several years when my sons were very young I painted life-size grasscapes. Now I find my self recycling plastic materials to create flowers that look like their natural counterparts. I love the irony.
What are your materials? Favorite go-to items? What materials have most surprised you?
“Can I have that?” is now my signature phrase, meaning can I have that peculiar piece of plastic you are about to toss? I'm always searching for interesting accent pieces, and plastics are so sexy these days. Gorgeous colors and contours. I began using only materials from my house but now have family, friends and businesses offering all kinds of materials. Twist ties, 2-litre bottles, water and designer drink bottles, milk jugs, sucker wrappers, medicine bottles, expired credit cards, prescription drug packaging, straws, clothing tags...these are some of my favorites, but far and away the milk jug is the most surprisingly versatile. Yes, milk jugs. The contours of the handle, base, and rounded corners are amazing, not to mention the stipply-textured areas at the handle. What a package!
What has most surprised you in this creative process?
How wonderfully similar these pieces are to my paintings. Often when I'm trimming or shaping a piece of plastic for a petal I think to myself, “I've made that mark before”. I have those muscle memories in my hands. The photographs, also, are so remarkably similar to my painting compositions. We all are who we are, and as an artist I make decisions, regardless of medium, that reflect my sensibilities. I think that's pretty interesting.
PART 2: 4 months later ....
Tell me all about the new materials – the look has changed so much since we started. What are you using and how are you using it.
The flowers are relaxing into themselves now, rather than imitating. Coincidentally, they are, I feel, more realistic than ever, BUT the objective is less about proving that the materials are credible. I once had a painting professor who would say, “Yea, you're on to something. Go make 50, and then we'll talk.” Now I've made my 50, perhaps 550, and surface details have faded to greater maturity in design.
The newer flowers are combining materials that integrate more natural color and character, for example, copper tubing and other types of wire for the stems, rather than the original electrical conduit. These new metals also introduce a sense of permanence to the plastics which, culturally speaking, are considered throw aways.
I've diversified my color scheme as well, as I learn different ways to construct the blooms. There are so many technical issues to consider when deciding which plastics to use for a particular flower.... texture, density, elasticity, and original contours, for example. Certain plastics are more pliable and can provide a base or contour on which other, more rigid plastics, can be couched or applied.
Tell me about the details --- shredding, splicing, cutting?
I use several different wire cutters and pliers to cut and shape the metals...scissors are sufficient for shaping most of the plastics. My preference is to stay away from the more toxic glues, so most of the blooms are constructed with hot glue, which adheres nicely to most of the materials. I have started, however, using some heavy duty adhesives for the flowers that have more challenging connection points between stem and bloom....greater strength to compensate for the curiosity they must endure from their viewers :)
The blooms are all built petal by petal, working in the round, so all sides are considered. Each petal provides a surface for the next, and so on, and so on. I prefer to go with the natural contours of the plastics rather than fight them, so my challenge is to find the curves I need from the bottles or jugs or lids. All colors, as in the beginning, are original to the materials
Copper wire and tubing / stems – what is that and where does it come from?
The copper wire and tubing were incredible finds. I have a friend who lives in a fairly rural area of TN and works at his neighborhood hardware store. He's one of those guys who can fix or build anything, and he's always got his eyes open for interesting materials for me. In fact, much of the copper wire I've been using for flower stems became available when a tree fell on his neighbor's c.1920 home, stripping all of the wiring from the side of the house. Unable to be reattached or reused, he presented it to me.
Home renovation projects are another wonderful source for copper tubing and other wires
Where did you get the inspiration for the flower patches and the “other worldly” corsages?
I love grass and the way wild flowers or weeds poke through in patches. Annoying for the gardener, but great inspiration for me. The clear, 5-point petal base, from a 2-litre bottle actually, establishes the “patch” as floral and decorative, and from a technical perspective, provides a place to attach the stem. Then it's a matter of building the patch, and I actually use 2-4 different green plastics for grass blades to create the illusion of shadow and depth. That same principle applies to the pencil shavings which function as dirt or mulch or earth of some kind. Last is the flower or flowers. I just pick a color that feels good that day...bright, saturated colors usually. A little goes a long way toward focal point. I love making the flower patches. They're so happy and childlike, an ode to Dr. Seuss!
Tell me about height and depth / fullness… are the flowers so customizable that you can go to any height and depth?
Typically I keep the stem flowers 7-12” tall, depending on the height of the vase, but they can be customized. The blooms need to be in proportion to the stem of course, but they tend to be 3-4” wide, 1.5-3” tall. Now the interesting thing to consider in arranging these flowers is that they are rigid surfaces, so they require a greater amount of personal space, let's say.
When you started you loved the irony of plastic imitating nature – do you still see that irony?
I do, but as the flowers mature, they feel more a part of nature to me. Nature, after all, is the great recycler. More than anything I love how hopeful they are. It's very easy to think a milk jug is and will always be a milk jug, for example, but the possibilities are endless if we're willing to think differently about the world, context, and natural relationships
What do you envision next? Where are these flowers going to take you --- do you start to see plastic opportunity & inspiration all around you?
I'm enjoying 3 dimensions and the flower form tremendously, but I would like to think more toward installation....bringing my work back into the gallery space. Flowers certainly have their place in art history, and I'm interested in placing these contemporary, culturally responsive flowers into that dialogue.
Yes, inspiration is endless!