Mistake House: In your 2013 TedxPeachtree talk, Trash + Love, you explore the idea that every aspect of experience is worthy of appreciation, despite any perceived lack of value. First, will you speak broadly about this concept of “attentive appreciation”? What is required, for example, to appreciate what seems valueless? What do you see as the benefits of this activity—ethically, creatively, humanly, etc.? And, in your view and experience, how does this process work? How does one move from dismissal or contempt to attentive appreciation and from attention to transformation?
Aurora Robson: People aren’t typically born with a great sense of appreciation for much of anything. We tend to transition out of a state of juvenile entitlement to a state of greater appreciation and wisdom throughout the course of our lives. This type of appreciation requires emotional maturity. Senses often develop over time, like a sense of appreciation for wine or art. As you develop tastes for new things, you develop a deeper sense of appreciation, which is very similar to the type of attentive appreciation I am interested in. The key for me is often factoring in the big picture— imagining myself in outer space peering at this solitary planet that supports life. I remind myself that no other planet has offered anything comparable. Making value judgments or creating false hierarchies is not appropriate—especially when we understand so little (as a species) about the actual mechanisms at play here in our vast, ever-changing universe. We are stardust with a temporary heartbeat.
Acknowledging the highly improbable aspects of life alone helps me to establish an internal subtext of attentive appreciation, which in turn informs all subsequent day-to-day decision-making. When things seem valueless, I try to look at them from a different perspective. From the viewpoint of a fibroblast, a lemur or a grain of rice, for example. We reflect our surroundings. Why do I perceive this particular item or experience as without value? Who or what does this serve? Sometimes the value is not evident at a given point in time, but reveals itself slowly, and is often surprising. Searching for an answer over time breeds humility, which furthers a sense of appreciation—like delayed gratification. I see this as intentional postponement of joy to help develop one’s own sense of appreciation. A heightened appreciation makes life more enjoyable. We don’t need as much in order to experience bliss if we appreciate more of what exists around us. It is marveling at the everyday, reaching through the veil of the mundane which enshrouds us to keep us behaving as if we are “sane.”
Sometimes, I have to physically move myself to a different location (or point in time) in order to recognize the inherent value in all that exists. All that exists has value—which at some times is very difficult to see. Slowing down helps. Engaging with the seemingly valueless item or experience in as many ways as possible often reveals its hidden significance.
Our existence is the most valuable experience we are sharing right now. Just breathing is a great and miraculous thing. Always something is far better than always nothing—and adopting this type of stance is beneficial to all life on earth. With a greater sense of attentive appreciation, behaviors that are not sustainable or harmful quickly become distasteful and counterintuitive.
This approach seems to facilitate spiritual, intellectual, and creative growth and is highly healthful and surprisingly addictive. It is like a lens that helps you see things for what they are, a gift. Most things that are addictive don’t offer such positive consequences. Imagine an eye you didn’t know you had slowly opening, revealing joy to help you overcome the dissonance that permeates our consciousness through our often spirit/mind numbing daily encounters.
MH: Regarding the nuanced awareness you bring to trash in your sculpture, what do you think happens to the value of waste when it is collected, transformed, and added to a larger installation? By changing its structure, color, and purpose, how does its inherent value change? Do you think that your art reveals that waste has value, or imbues waste with value?
AR: Art and garbage are polar opposites, yet they are the two things we leave behind on earth. Once transformed into art, debris becomes the antithesis of itself. That doesn’t commonly happen with material. Most people agree that the greatest value is not in things, but rather in love or related actions. When we cast aside our biases (in terms of material in particular), we see debris for what it really is, displaced abundance. It is a viable resource. It is more suitable for sculptural applications than many materials are. Plastic debris has“plasticity” built into it. It also has archival integrity built into it. From an environmental standpoint, this design flaw is catastrophic, but from an artist’s perspective it makes the material worthy of greater exploration.
I like to think that my work reveals the inherent value in this material. Many people don’t realize that petroleum is the primary ingredient in most plastics. A recent Columbia University study states that there is enough plastic in US landfills to fuel all the cars in Los Angeles for a year.
I explore a lot of “why nots” and “what ifs” in my work. Revealing inherent value is part of my hope, but I also aim to imbue it with value by virtue of ingenuity, craft, attention to detail, creativity, love, and patience. These are things you can’t place a price tag on, but are far more valuable than matter, from my perspective. In the end, it is immaterial to me, and much more about a meditative practice of transformation. It is about establishing value where it ought to have been recognized in the first place. Plastics have been too cheap for too long; the real cost is catching up to us. The MacArthur Foundation recently released a study projecting that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans. This should alarm us because not only are most plastics toxic, they are also being ingested by plankton. Plankton are responsible for roughly 50% of the oxygen in our atmosphere. So, how does that impact climate change predictions? Water temperatures and acidity levels? The delicate balance of our entire ecosystem could be shifted by our careless handling of this seemingly innocuous material. Plastics, whether in our everyday items or in our art, need to be handled and priced appropriately so that we can collectively circumvent yet another road towards the imminent demise of our ecosystem.
MH: Your piece entitled The Great Indoors mimics the inner and outer structures of the human body through the use of plastic bottles. Many of your other pieces utilize organic forms and idiosyncratic designs, suggesting a natural composition despite the artificiality of plastic. What is the significance of portraying organic structures through inorganic materials that—in reality—harm organic structures, such as plants, humans, and the ocean? Do you feel your artwork dispels or embodies this ironic relationship?
AR: Roughly 92% of all seabirds have plastic in their stomachs. Humans are walking around full of trace toxins due to our constant contact with plastic. Polyethylene terephthalate is particularly bad (the clear bottles) in terms of its widespread use for beverages. Bisphenol A got a lot of bad press about a decade ago, so now we see many bottles advertising that they are “BPA free,” but BPA has been widely replaced by BPS, which is potentially even worse in terms of toxicity. The FDA does so little to protect us. Our fears as a society are painfully misdirected. Stacks of water bottles bake in the sun outside of grocery stores across America, photo-degrading and leaching toxic chemicals into drinking water, which we then pay a premium for. At the same time, we pay taxes so that we should have safe drinking water from our taps. Plastic particles are finding their way into the food chain, our water, and, if the trajectories don’t shift, will subsequently compromise the balance of our atmosphere.
The Great Indoors was a reflection on plastic pollution and the need to take action as a society. I was thinking a lot about the myth of interior vs. exterior. Of the otherworldly organic forms inside us at a cellular and microscopic level and how they correspond to astronomically scaled phenomena. We are part of this system and there is only a very thin membrane between us and everything else. If we continue to make art that honors nature while harming nature (using more virgin resources than not), we will eventually find ourselves restricted to simulated natural settings. I hope my artwork embodies this ironic relationship while inspiring more people to take decisive action to reduce their plastic footprints and help restrict the flow of plastic to our waters, or do something to actively engage in sustainable practices.
MH: Is there something about the word “natural” that we need to rethink? Or, does your art practice embody a grief or informed nostalgia for a natural world that is undergoing escalating harm—and, even more so as the concept of climate change has been denied by those in political power?
AR: The word “natural,” to me, is something I think about mostly in terms of our habits. I think it often comes naturally to people to do things that are self-destructive. When we are motivated by fear, we behave self-destructively. I am interested in helping people develop the opposite behaviors in terms of what comes naturally, being motivated by love instead of fear or anything else. Learning to love that which we hate is an exercise in leaning into our discomfort. Hopefully we all know the benefits of that type of exercise by now. If we think about how plants grow in the direction that is most beneficial to them and follow suit, we’d be a lot better off. Let it become natural for us to do no harm to ourselves or our planet. Let it become just part of what we do, like brushing our teeth. Keeping our waste out of the environment doesn’t seem like it should be beyond our capacity as humans.
Both the arts and the sciences are under attack under our current administration. I wonder if this will inadvertently unite the two sectors, encouraging meaningful productive action and unprecedented dialogue. Perhaps sharing limited resources and tapping into each others’ respective skill sets will result in more sustainable courses of action. Perhaps this will inadvertently unite the two sides of the brain in a way — allowing us as a species to use both hands.
I don’t think of my work as nostalgic at all. I like to think I am on the forefront of a way of practicing that will become more sophisticated as future generations develop better sustainable practices. I am focused on how art can be of service in a changing world that relies, in part, on visionary thinkers using their specific skills to help envision and create a sustainable future so that the platform for all forms of human activity can remain in tact.
MH: Your not-for-profit organization, Project Vortex, unites “artists, designers, and architects actively working with plastic debris,” provides on-site resources in the interception of waste streams, and “[raises] awareness” regarding plastic and waste pollution. How do you navigate the relationship between art and activism? What advice would you give to students and professionals dedicated to social change and the betterment of humanity through the arts and via interdisciplinary relationships, such as the ones formed through Project Vortex?
AR: To me it has to be art first. The development of Project Vortex has been a slow labor of love. As time passes and I understand more about the nature of the plastic pollution problem and discover others around the planet persevering in terms of the innovative work they are doing to address this issue, I see a greater need for the network to form, develop and grow. My hope is that it will provide support for all participants, as well as serve as a potential resource for academic institutions around the globe who are interested in developing more sustainable curricula. The PV members can be thought of as potential partners for academic institutions and conservation groups who can assist in the implementation of sustainable art and design programs and courses, which could in turn help alleviate the strain plastic pollution is having on our planet.
MH: In your TEDx talk, you shared experiences related to the three-week intensive course you taught at Mary Baldwin University entitled, “Sculpture + Intercepting the Waste Stream.” Because the students wanted to find the best materials for their soon-to-be art projects, the river cleanup transformed into “a treasure hunt.” Do you think that exercises like this—ones that require seeking beauty and potential in discarded waste—help individuals develop empathy and curiosity? Do you see potential for this philosophical approach in other academic fields? How might this idea of discovery, reclamation, and transformation be applied beyond plastics to other concepts or situations?
AR: Since the first implementation at Mary Baldwin, the course has been tested at many other academic institutions—each time with astoundingly positive results. When a student slows down and approaches something this problematic or unpleasant one component at a time and factors in everything that can be done to make trash into its polar opposite, they start to develop a sense of attentive appreciation. It becomes less overwhelming and more mesmerizing. You spend time cleaning, shaping, sculpting that singular bit of trash, and you realize you are doing the opposite of that which has brought this nightmarish problem to the forefront. If the material were handled with greater care by more people around the world, it would cease to be a problem. You are suddenly part of a complex solution to a widespread complex problem that will ultimately affect every living creature on this planet. It becomes monumentally life changing for some people. Empathy, accountability and curiosity are only a small fraction of what students often come away with.
Academic exercises are usually somewhat insular. They often don’t yield real world results, which many students deeply crave. People in their late teens and early twenties are looking for ways to engage in topical issues that are effective. Academic institutions have a tendency to become bureaucratic behemoths that aren’t designed to mirror the fluid changes in societies or actively engage students in creative problem solving. Giving students an opportunity to have impact on the world outside of academia is like creating a bridge.
The sense of accountability and ownership that results from seeing your effort result in value can’t be measured but I suspect students desire and deserve those kinds of opportunities. This course is cross-disciplinary in nature thus encourages proactive dialogue between the arts and sciences. Such convergences are most fruitful in terms of solving environmental and societal problems. I am certain that a culture of creative stewardship can be developed through academia with widespread implementation of this course or variations on it.
When a clean up becomes a communal act and a treasure hunt for art supplies, students enjoy becoming educated stewards of the planet and engaging with their communities in a meaningful and productive way. They start to see problems more as opportunities to find solutions. They develop a keener ability to recognize potential and opportunity. Biases fall away as the students lean into their discomfort (working directly with debris), by working as a group. This creates an interesting aspect of competitive transformation, thus heightening the caliber of work tremendously. Plus, there is the added pressure of public display with an auction at the end to support local conservation efforts and future implementation of the course.
It is designed to bridge the divide between academia and the real world through a practical engagement that is highly relevant and timely—especially when budgets for art supplies at academic institutes are being cut and funding for sciences and arts are being restricted. It is a cost effective approach with lasting effects on students.
In terms of other materials and how this type of course could be applied, it isn’t really about the material at all. It is about intercepting waste in general, so that as the population continues to grow, we don’t continue to cover the surface of our planet with waste and choke life out. Working with what already exists I think is how creatives will serve humanity in the future more and more. Mining the earth for limited resources is simply not sustainable, innovative or necessary.
MH: Several of your installations are very large—some spanning over one hundred feet long—and all of them are suspended above the ground. In your TED talk “Trash + Love,” you discuss that this curation choice quite literally exalts the perceived waste into an object of wonder that forces observers to look up, thereby inviting “receptive, reflective, and optimistic” thought in response. Your art also comes from landscapes from recurring nightmares you had as a child. Would you describe your art as uncanny, or sublime? Do you find that the expansiveness, looming structures coupled with the playful color palettes and soft curves both inspire wonder and instill fear? And, if so, what is your sense of the value of both wonder and fear, especially in terms of the kinds of attentional processes and transformations your process and work embody?
AR: I like the words “uncanny” and “sublime” with regard to my work, but I would never call my work that. I put it out there and hope that it is received with a combination of results according to each person’s needs. I hope that it is received like a good book, giving people an opportunity to hear their own voices speaking to them through the words that I have written, but with their own inflection and inference. A good book is a different book if you read it again three years later. We are changing and need to listen to our own voices through art and literature at intervals. I only want to make work that creates space for reflection.
At a glance, most people don’t realize the work is made of debris, so they get an “Aha!” moment that I love to provide—a certain degree of waking up and wonderment needs to take place in order for people to change their values and perspectives.
The proliferation of plastic debris and its negative impacts on the environment also serves up an aspect of abject horror. In my work, I am subjugating the negative aspects of my childhood recurring nightmares while retaining their structural qualities. I do this as a personal meditation on positive transformation that serves as a great metaphorical basis for the global environmental dialogue I am engaged in. The nightmares I had, it turns out, are very common in children the age I was when I had them. I learned this from doing a series of lectures with kids in 2-4th grade classes a few years ago, in which I showed images of some of my paintings that illustrate the all-encompassing nature of the nightmares while maintaining their formal/structural qualities. About 1/3rd of each class said they had the same nightmare. I was surprised to learn that these are actually very common stress dreams in children. One little girl came up to me and gave me an unsolicited hug while she said; “Thank you for making me not afraid to dream anymore.”
That said, my goal is not to instill fear, rather wake people up in a loving way to the profound impacts and consequences of our seemingly insignificant decisions. I try to create a positive space for people to actively engage in productive dialogues around issues of value, perception, and consciousness. I think about wonder and fear in contrast to being oblivious or careless. The average person in this country thinks all they have to do is throw their plastic bottle in the recycling bin and carry on with their grossly consumptive habits. Without the art, understanding the breadth and scope of this problem would only result in apathy and depression.
MH: You work with a team of artists to create your work. How do you think this feeds your creative process, having others to help you put your construction together? Will you talk about the value and process of collaboration and of the various kinds of roles that your studio assistants and other artists play in this process for you?
AR: The best thing for me is when I am in the process of creating sustainable art that sustains me and as many others as possible. I love being able to feed other artists through sustainable art practices. I love hearing other perspectives and approaches to solving any given problem that arises in the studio. I am flexible, but my work is very labor intensive. Working with crews is very different from working alone. I love both ways of working for different reasons and try to balance out the two so that I can sustain both. To me, any day I get to work in the studio either with a team or alone is a great gift.
Some studio assistants are best at hands-on fabrication, while others are best at helping organize the chaos of debris we work with, or helping source and collect specific types of plastic debris. Some are best at cleaning it, sculpting, assembling, welding, or helping develop systems. I like working with different people from different cultures and backgrounds, so visual communicators are always helpful to have in the studio. I have been very lucky in terms of studio assistants over the years. My main assistant Marina Litvinskaya has been with me for 10 years on and off, mostly on, and she is like a part of my family now. People like her, who take pride in their work, appreciate craftsmanship, pay attention to details, are sensitive, rational, playful, and have good taste in music and literature, a sense of humor and innate ability to focus on attentive appreciation every day are invaluable beyond measure. My husband Marshall Coles has been my other constant in the studio and on installs for a decade now too. I can’t imagine doing my work without his sensitive critical intelligent input.
MH: You’ve drawn attention to the dichotomy between trash and art, two examples being that “art is the opposite impulse of throwing something away” and that “plastic is a global nightmare and art is a global language.” Yet within your work there’s a harmony between the longevity of trash and the lasting impressions of art. Can you expand upon the “mediation” between these contrasting ideas?
AR: I think of my job as a mediator in many ways. I am interested in exploring unifying dialogues through my work so that I can somehow be of service. I see art as a possible bridge between socioeconomic and cultural divides. It can provide people from vastly differing perspectives something to agree upon in some way, thus creating a subtext of harmony and peace to build upon. I look to create equalizing indisputable platforms designed to support harmonious existence and dialogue by taking seemingly disparate ideas or juxtapositions of opposites (waste and art for example) and merging them in ways that both retain their essential aspects, while revealing complementary unions and shared potentialities. My practice is a form of anti-discriminatory pattern recognition.
Plastic debris is constantly moving in the wind and water and morphing at its source—designs for bottles and containers constantly change and often for no apparent reason other than to keep designers employed—I marvel at how frequently new cars and cell phones are designed. So much pointless redesigning of products that were perfectly well designed in the first place is happening everywhere. Addiction to this “freshness” is highly addictive and extremely problematic. Consequently, there is a vast, complex treadmill that imprisons us in a constant state of fear-based comparative analysis and competitiveness that is often more damaging than simply disengaging from it would be. Liberation is akin to alienation.
Once displaced abundance has ceased to fulfill its initial purpose, I approach it pragmatically; I attempt to use visual communication to breathe new life into it by configuring it to reveal formal qualities of life forms and reference my childhood nightmares. I incorporate structures found in natural, living forms. Studying formal qualities that constitute a particular living organism and imbue this deadly, problematic, highly invasive, lifeless material with those qualities, rendering it peaceful, harmless, and, ideally, even inspiring—despite its toxic nature. In this way, I aim to shift the trajectory of the material that is headed downward, into the waste stream, so that it arrives at a completely different destination. While the initial purpose of the material has expired, the utility has not been exhausted by any means. I feel I have barely scratched the surface of what is possible with plastic debris as a primary medium, but if it were to suddenly become a non-issue in terms of its detrimental effects on our environment, I would lose all interest in it, and move onto another problem to solve through art.
MH: Your sculptures have an otherworldly quality to them, though they are made of and rooted in things of this world. You’ve also mentioned in previous talks and interviews how your art, at least initially, has stemmed from your nightmares. How do you explore this space between the world we inhabit physically and the world we inhabit mentally?
AR: The nightmares that terrified me as a child have since become my fodder. They’ve served me very well—I wouldn’t have my practice if I weren’t plagued with them as a child. I suffered because of them, but now they serve me, which is kind of like falling in love. It hurts a lot sometimes, but has the potential to work out quite well. Plastic pollution is a highly disturbing phenomenon, but it too reveals great potential for all sorts of interesting applications, including providing a mobilizing force to potentially unite artists, scientists, academics and conservationists and for helping people tap into a deeper subset of creativity which could have incredible results for our collective consciousness.
I usually listen to information during the morning—while I work. I try to structure my days so that the mornings are spent working while learning about current scientific inquiries, political events, literature, history, news, or pop culture, and then the afternoons are spent with music, so that I can process, filter, digest, and distill whatever (often disconcerting) information I ingested earlier in the day. I try to explore the space between the mental and physical without distinguishing or compartmentalizing the two. In my mind they are not in fact disparate, rather part of the whole, like the breath and the body and the spirit. They are best experienced together.
MH: The knot-like, choking nightmares you’ve formally drawn upon parallel the experiences of many creatures that come to contact with waste, like sea turtles becoming trapped in plastic netting. Will you talk about the use of metaphor—or other kinds of associative trope—as an effective means of developing insight, empathy, and—subsequently—compelling creative concepts?
AR: The parallels were not intentional. I didn’t set about to work with plastic debris because I was conscious of the gyres of plastic choking marine life. I stumbled upon this issue by being open-minded and entertaining the possibility I saw in the material as it littered the streets by my old studio in Brooklyn. When I learned of the gyres of plastic in our oceans and the grave consequences this material yields, I noticed the correlation between the formal qualities of plastic pollution in our waters (tangled knotted chaotic shape shifting messes) and my childhood nightmares. I took that as an indication that this might be an appropriate course of study. This focus is familiar to me because of the nightmares. I overcame the childhood nightmares and haven’t had them since I was a kid. This may be part of why I have a sense of not entirely optimism, but not pessimism, when it comes to helping solve this daunting environmental crisis.
MH: Let’s talk about realism and representation, an issue that arises in both visual art and in poetry- and fiction-writing. Regarding the simile between, for example, nightmares and the ocean-born hazards that sea-turtles face, you actively bring awareness to the problems waste makes for the organic world, yet your work doesn’t often represent organic forms realistically—the closest being Plant Perception (2014) and The Great Indoors (2008). What are your reasons for intentionally distancing your art from the recognizable representation of living species, for using organic-seeming but nonobjective forms instead? Can the inorganic and organic not be joined because that would suggest a harmony that doesn’t exist in the environment today?
AR: That is an interesting conclusion, but I don’t think of it that way at all. I am not trying to be didactic or emphatic. I often find representational work to be confining and limiting. I make work that I like to look at or be around. I often have to live with my work for quite a while before it finds a permanent home, and since I enjoy space for both interpretation and revised interpretation as time passes I try to provide that to others. It is an attempt at sharing the liberation I experience in the studio. Work that references something on a cellular level later on reveals astronomical aspects as we learn more about our universe and deepen our understanding of the shapes of things that are out there and currently exceed our capacity for measurement. Intellectual and spiritual growth allows for entirely new readings of work when it is suggestive as opposed to emphatic. It isn’t a painting of a puppy, but it has puppy-ness—that is what I find interesting. Indisputable essence devoid of delineation. Let the viewer find what they need at any given time, so they have an opportunity to reflect. I want to create familiar, yet non-specific experiences for the viewer because those types of experiences benefit me.
MH: As of this moment, you’re combatting waste in two major fields: that of artistry and academics. Will you discuss your approach to teaching and academic programs? Would you say your academic programs are “intercepting the waste stream” of thought? How have you seen students’ thought develop through the course?
AR: Recently, a student from an implementation a few years ago reached out to me to ask if she could use the techniques and methodology she learned while taking the course to create a large-scale installation of her own and I was ecstatic. I really hope to make this type of approach commonplace in my lifetime. I like how you put it—“intercepting the waste stream of thought”—that is very compelling to me because I look back upon my days in college and remember thinking so much about so many things and feeling it would have been nice to have more of those thoughts put into action, not wasted on an essay that gets graded and then fades away.
My approach is developing and changing, even as I type these words now – possibly because I haven’t found a satisfying method yet for encouraging widespread implementation.
MH: In your Tedx talk, you mention the phrase “perceptions of matter.” Matter can imply that which is physical and tangible or that which carries importance. In your view, how does the artist or writer—the creative worker—most effectively use the materials at hand (the “matter,” whether plastic, paint, or words) to evoke “the matter at hand” (the significance or substance of thought and experience).
AR: Choosing your material wisely while recognizing that it isn’t the material itself that matters, rather our relationship to it that matters. It is how we treat matter (or words, or each other) that reveals the important truths worth sharing. Our suffering isn’t interesting in and of itself. It is our ability to navigate through suffering to a state of bliss and finding a vehicle (or material) that enables us to proceed with grace—be it stone, marble, text, dance, plastic debris, whatever—that is essential. It is in our intimate handling/engaging with material where aspects of the “matter at hand” that are worthy of contemplation become revealed. To me, the best art is about revealing, not concealing or subterfuge of any kind. To me, there is no better way to reveal than to get past our preconceived notions of hierarchy and just commit, commence. Begin again and again and again.
MH: Your work is physically present for viewers, entangling them within the many spirals and lines of the plastic while emphasizing the importance of fixing the problem of waste. But what about the spaces the waste does not fill? How do you manipulate emptiness in the context of your work? What is the value of emptiness?
AR: Negative space is a device I use only sparingly. It is a compositional tactic that serves commercial artists very well, as it is incredibly pleasing to the eye. I am currently focusing more on the issue of hyper abundance—displaced abundance, which doesn’t allow for much indulgence in terms of emptiness. However, it is interesting because the diaphanous blobs in my childhood nightmares emerged from the negative spaces in these knots, so in a way, they are integral to the work.
Even remote deserts are littered with plastic debris, so playing with emptiness and negative space seems overly indulgent to me somehow. As above, so below. Emptiness and silence personally provide me with respite, and I enjoy them in my life, but I don’t think that my job entails providing that for others at this time. Although, I am sure that (like everything) will change over time.
MH: Much of the plastic you use is from plastic bottles, which aren’t usually vibrantly colored, but your art is rich and vibrant with hues. How does your use of color reflect your voice and express the message of your work? In terms of the conceptual significance of your work, which we have discussed at length here, what is the significance of color?
AR: I am jealous of the mantis shrimp. They see more colors than any other living creature, yet what is it they are doing with that visual information? They are violent tiny creatures in an artless society under the sea. I love color. I love playing with color. It is like an endlessly enjoyable toy to me. I can resist it sometimes, but often don’t see the need to. I think the surprise moment of realization when a viewer becomes aware that what they are looking at is actually made from plastic garbage is so important; which is why I often use color as a device to further distance the material from its original state. Once airbrushed (with non-toxic environmentally conscious paint) a piece of trash can be fully transformed and totally divorced from its previous state.
MH: We are interested in the discussion of “shifting perception” for the audience who views your art so that the concept “trash” is completely removed from the viewer’s thought process. Given how colorful and vibrant your sculptures are, do you select certain colors by specifically trying to alter a perception or enlist your audience in a particular way?
AR: Sometimes it is very specific—like Pulp Fiction, which was made from Tropicana bottles after they switched to plastic bottles (and incredibly thick bottles at that). They started selling us less juice for more money in these super durable bottles that are designed to last essentially forever. This warranted an orange colored sculpture of course. It is nice when not resisting temptation does no harm. I anticipate that often, the sculptures will be in direct sunlight for many years, and while the plastics I work with take hundreds to thousands of years to photo degrade, the paint will fade over time, so in anticipation of fading I will often start more vibrant than I would otherwise. I hope these suspended sculptures eventually become like ghosts and remind us of our frivolous times past in a loving hovering way so we don’t continue to make the same mistakes.
MH: In a previous interview, you mention the Chuck Close quote posted on the wall in your studio, “Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us show up.” You mention that you do not give into the notion of hitting a “block.” Can you speak to the ways in which your consistent creative practice and work ethic enables you to keep moving forward? What kind of methods or states of consciousness do you draw upon to keep yourself “showing up” even when you aren’t feeling inspired?
AR: I think my work ethic stems in part from resisting the life of an artist for so long. I was so terrified of being poverty stricken and alienated. I didn’t want the life of an artist. I wanted to be an engineer or a marine biologist or an architect. I wanted to design and build bridges. I wanted a simple, peaceful life with health insurance and benefits. In college, I swore I wasn’t going to indulge in art. But then, I took one studio class, and then another, and then I was hooked. There was no escape. Carl Jung said “What you resist persists,” and I think that applies to so many things in so many ways. Sometimes, you need to resist in order to find your passion. I finally succumbed and by the time I did, I knew for certain that if I did anything other than art with my days, I had zero chance at personal fulfillment, which would likely make me a burden on someone, if not society as a whole. I knew that if I at least tried with all my might to find a way to sustain myself (and now my family, too) through my art, there was hope for me. I am determined because I know from experience that giving up is easily the most boring option. You are what you do and I have no intention of being an imposter. I also think there is validity to accepting your practice for what it is, even if on some days your output isn’t stellar.
MH: In this same interview, you stress the importance of “developing as many skills as possible before launching into a full-time [art] practice.” Can you expound on the skills you developed prior to becoming a full-time artist? In what ways do these skills specifically inform the work that you do now? This may be a question that only students would ask, since we are imagining the future as working artists and writers, but how do these accumulated skills grow and transform over time? What can the serious student expect to encounter in terms of inventive growth—and not just reproducing the same forms over and over again?
AR: I did so many different jobs—things ranging from sous chef to dog walker to welder to scenic artist. I was a waitress, a bartender, a hostess, a graphic designer, an art director, and a set dresser. I did props for a TV show. I did hair and make up for a fashion photographer. I did antique restoration. I worked at an umbrella factory as the head of the art department. I took each job very seriously because I needed the income and I really like to push myself to see what I am capable of. It is so weird waking up every day in this body and getting to try new things. It never ceases to amaze me that the days keep coming and it is still me in this body, with my ever increasing life experience shuffling itself between the foreground and background of my consciousness. The ways these random jobs serve me now as an artist are still being revealed. Working as a bartender taught me how to interact with people who are behaving badly in a productive and calm way. It helps me in art contexts quite often. The work I did as a scenic artist and art director helps me plan and design exhibits to scale. It is very useful to know how to make a scale model and, and in my opinion, every artist should develop this skill set. The work I did as a graphic designer helps me create my own presentation materials/online etc… The more you know, the more you will be able to be independent, and most artists gravitate to art because of the independence that it offers. The freedom of being solely accountable for all the decisions pertaining to your practice is the ultimate freedom, but with that there are, of course, many consequences to consider.
MH: You mention in several interviews that the notion of “transformation” is an important theme in your work. To what extent do you depend on your inherent sensitivity as an artist and an activist? Do you see a relationship between sensitivity and self-transcendence?
AR: To me, sensitivity is strength. But it means you need protectors, too. It isn’t like a switch you can turn on and off—it is a constant that can be as crippling as it is empowering. It also helps you recognize subtle nuances or aspects of existence that need to be made visible for discourse. Artists as humans with heightened sensitivities can serve by helping identify and make visual these murky aspects of our consciousness that are worthy of discussion. You have to be sensitive in order to identify these things in the first place; and you have to notice and trust yourself if you suspect you have found something of cultural significance. Exploring with great sensitivity often reveals more than simplistic broad strokes. To share a real sense of anything, you have to develop your sensitivity. Once you do that, honing your skills so that you can develop and use your own visual language becomes much easier and you can start to dance in that space.
MH: In an interview, you explain your perception that “used objects contain historical energy.” To what extent is your sculptural work in dialogue with that energy? Do you feel this energy transform as you alter the objects for the sake of your work? Do you make specific choices about how you use a particular object in response to its historical energy?
AR: I empathize with debris. I know there are stories embedded in this material that I will never have access to. Consider the anonymous person who selected a bottle of dish soap 30 years ago that washed ashore on a distant beach after being tossed about by ocean currents and carried halfway around the planet. There is poetry and sadness and loss inherent in the material, but also seduction, utility and desire. That bottle was once the chosen one, shiny and new. Allowed into the person’s home and given real estate there. A spot on the counter or a few inches on a shelf next to who knows what. Maybe it was a famous person who owned that bottle of dish soap—or maybe it was my grandmother. There are no indentifying marks, there is mystery. Was that the brand she bought? So many stories are lost and found, resonating in the objects that litter our landscapes and suffocate harmless, defenseless, innocent creatures that share this ecosystem with us. Each bit of debris has a rich past, has traveled through many hands, hearts and homes. It is so personal, yet impersonal. Understanding that energy can not be created nor destroyed, but can only change forms leads me to practice moving energy around until it finds a position where it can serve a purpose and hopefully do no harm.
MH: You’ve mentioned in interviews that you read a lot of Buckminster Fuller. “Bucky” Fuller was an incredibly important and prominent thinker during the last half of the 20th century, who is perhaps not considered as widely today as he should be (although the Buckminster Fuller Institute extends and perpetuates his thought). Will you talk not only about how his ideas have impacted you and your work, but about why Buckminster Fuller’s ideas should be revisited and given more attention now?
AR: I think this quote says it all:
“Pollution is nothing but the resources we are not harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we’ve been ignorant of their value.” – R. Buckminster Fuller
MH: You’ve mentioned that you feel art making becomes simply “luxurious frivolity” when the art-maker does not have vision. You also stress the importance of not contributing more “stuff” to the world and your work is a testament to this value, as your transformation of plastic waste as a medium is clearly in line with this ideal. Could you more explicitly explain your view of luxury vs. necessity in terms of the current art world and perhaps offer any ideas or solutions you feel the contemporary art world should reconsider in light of where we are in human history? Are there artists (such as Thomas Hirschhorn or Spencer Finch, perhaps) whose work aligns with your ideal?
AR: There are many artists whose work aligns with my ideals—too many to mention here. I am highly addicted to contemporary art. I may have misspoke though, or changed my perspective since then. I think art is both a luxury and a necessity. Things, like people, can be conglomerations of opposites simultaneously. I think it was Jean Arp who said; “art is a fruit that grows on man,” and we need balanced diets in order to sustain ourselves. Fruits and vegetables are both luxurious while they are nutritious and essential to our diets. We need and love art or else we will suffer from some kind of cultural scurvy. A society without art and culture is not a society; it is something else. Fresh fruits and fresh art offer essentially the same benefits. We can develop tastes that serve us instead of destroy us. It is just one of many paths to heightening our sense of appreciation and recognizing our inner wisdom.
MH: Do you ever play hooky (we hope you do)? And, if you do, what is your favorite thing to do when you take off suddenly, as in a dérive?
AR: Of course! Dancing to music at full volume is one of my favorite ways to play hooky. It helps me process and relax. I also love to sing, cook, and garden. (Growing fruits and vegetables is so much fun, especially with kids helping out). I love sunshine and animals. I love to play anything with my daughters (9 and 5) and I love practicing yoga. I love being in or near the ocean. I love hanging out with old and new friends. I love a well-crafted cocktail. I love traveling and discovering new music. I love trying new things—last winter I tried snowboarding for the first time with my 9-year-old. I love long hot bubble baths resplendent with candles and a good book. I seize all opportunities to snuggle with our pets, our kids, and my incredibly patient and supportive husband. I like to play frisbee, make fairy houses with my daughters, be barefoot in the grass and on sand, to swim, to go roller skating and running. I love to play Bananagrams and watch movies. I love stand-up comedy. I love people who make me laugh. I love absurdist humor. I am very curious and never get bored. And I like to play a lot. Almost as much as I like to do my work—but not quite.