Q&A with Aurora Robson
New York based multi-media artist, Aurora Robson shows us how collected waste can become magical art forms.
Before we get started, our sk*p community would love to learn how & why you started this work? Is there something specific that led you to start working with plastic and other debris to create collages, paintings, and sculptures?
Debris is everywhere and endlessly accumulating and morphing. It amazes me that people have such a tendency to overlook and disregard it. It is a neglected material that is silently accumulating in the corners of our lives, cast away, loved only for a moment. It speaks volumes about the human condition and our innate ability to dissociate. I have empathy towards it. I see it as matter that is being collectively treated poorly. I guess I tend to root for the underdog and offer my hands/head/heart.
Do you currently have your own studio? If so, what does it look like?
I am very fortunate in that my studio is the foundation for my home and life. I go down to the basement/garage level of my house to work every day! It is a very short and environmentally friendly commute. My studio is mainly a plastic debris surgery studio with ultrasonic and injection welders designed for welding plastics. There is a smaller area designated for working with junk mail and excess packaging which I use in collage/mixed media wall based works and paintings. I also have a small area for my office and documentation of art work.
As we know, waste can be found almost everywhere. Where do you source your plastic from, and how far do you go to find waste? Have you ever created a piece on location?
I use plastic and paper debris from everywhere and anywhere, as long as it isn’t virgin material. I sometimes work with communities or groups who are engaged in collecting the materials for redemption — or conducting clean-ups of rivers, parks, roadsides, or shores. I sometimes work with individuals, schools, libraries, and corporations who share my interest in sequestering plastic debris into art, where it can do no further harm. I like to go on location to work with materials that are accumulating to make an artwork for that location.
We are inspired by the international initiative you founded called Project Vortex. Can you share more about its mission and tell us how others can get involved?
Project Vortex is an international collective of artists, designers, and architects actively engaged in intercepting the plastic waste stream. They are also using this material for applications in which its longevity becomes an asset instead of wreaking havoc on the environment. This petroleum based material is well suited for art and design applications in which longevity is desirable. PV is an ever-growing network designed to help illustrate future friendly creative approaches that are often adaptable for academic/creative stewardship initiatives and public and private art collections. Creatives working with this material can apply for membership through the website. Individuals and organizations can support the mission of Project Vortex by purchasing an original piece of art through the site, or sharing this project with local educators, museums, galleries, or non-traditional exhibition venues. The aim is to help people develop tastes for things that are better for them and the planet.
As sk*p is a brand that inspires young people to care about environmental stewardship, what would you say is the biggest takeaway from your work? What advice would you give to someone who wants to start working with plastic as a medium?
Working with plastic debris is liberating. It is open territory with plenty of room for innovation. More traditional art mediums like bronze, metal, or glass have already been explored extensively. They are extractive and environmentally costly in comparison. Plastic debris is a great medium because it bends to our whim so well and is so forgivin—which I think is a lovely and humble attribute to celebrate both in materials and people. It makes art making intrinsically an act of service, allowing humans to exercise artistic expression without doing harm. The only aspect to be wary of, from my perspective, is learning about the chemical compositions of these materials and doing a bit of research first—so you don’t harm yourself with the toxic additives in many of these seemingly trustworthy everyday materials.
Why do you think it’s important for brands like sk*p to find alternatives to plastic packaging?
I am so happy to learn that brands like sk*p are working to reduce their plastic footprint! With an estimated 9% of plastics actually being recycled worldwide, all efforts to reduce the use of virgin plastics are commendable and necessary. Creating, developing, and distributing alternatives to plastic packaging will help change tastes so that petroleum based products can become the fossils of the fossil fuel industry. It is essential to take steps to shift norms, since the norms haven’t served us well. I see this transition as a beautiful testimony to human adaptability and the power of love and dedication. It all matters. Climbing a ladder is best done in small, conscientious, and incremental steps.
"Creating, developing, and distributing alternatives to plastic packaging will help change tastes so that petroleum based products can become the fossils of the fossil fuel industry." - Aurora Robson
You have been working with waste to create art for many years, what would you say are some of the most surprising objects you have found and have been able to incorporate into your work?
I don’t know that any objects have surprised me, but the distance objects have traveled is astonishing. For example, when working with the Hawaii Wildlife Fund, I used materials that washed ashore on the Big Island that came from as far away as Japan, Korea, Russia, and South America. It was evident that they had also been floating about in the ocean for decades. Seeing shapes of bottles that haven’t been around since the 70s was eerie and strange. It collapses time when you have these kinds of encounters and reveals the big picture of our petroleum based foibles.
Your artwork seems very engaging, how do you get your friends and family involved in the process?
For the past few weeks, my husband and his nephew have been helping me with fabrication of a sizable outdoor sculpture made from thick gauge welded industrial plastic debris. It will be on view in November at the Rockland Center for the Arts in NY for an exhibition called “Women in Sculpture.” My daughters sometimes help sort plastic debris for me or help organize the chaos of debris that comes to me from various sources and collaborators. They have even done some welding of plastic debris on various projects. My mother-in-law saves her vitamin and pomegranate juice bottles for me. Many friends save specific items in palettes or chemical compositions that I am currently working with as needed. Strangers sometimes reach out wanting to send me things that aren’t getting recycled in their areas. I love involving people in my practice as I see it as an inspiring and empowering way of connecting and building community.
What advice would you give to those who want to do their part to help the environment but don’t know where to start?
Small steps make smaller footprints. The tiniest of changes in behavior make a difference. Try carrying a reusable bottle, bag, and cutlery when you go out. Buy things that have less packaging whenever possible. If you are looking for a way to be a creative steward, or an environmentally conscious artist—I recommend starting with glossy paper packaging or junk mail. These are entry level gateway materials that don’t require special equipment. The entire palette is readily available in this debris and these materials are so relatable and over produced. I suggest starting by gathering, sorting, and flattening out packaging materials that resonate with you. Think about transforming it in terms of balancing oppositions. If trash is chaotic, dirty, and disorganized by nature, imbue it with the opposite qualities. Don’t hold back. Now is the time to embrace doing things differently for the sake of life on earth. Let yourself experiment and play—honor your creative impulses. There is so much music and light in our residue waiting to be revealed and we all need music and light so we can find our way out of darkness. Honoring the environment is more challenging, but if you allow yourself this time and do the work with pure intention, the meaning and benefits are well worth the effort.
Visit Aurora’s website to learn more about her work and upcoming projects.