Beauty in the Disposable
Artist Profile — Virginia Fleck
I promised you another master of recycled art, and that Virginia Fleck is. Through her artist’s eye and craftperson’s hands, the commonplace and oft-discarded becomes mesmerizing and kaleidoscopic. Visit with Virginia, and I know you’ll be inspired.
HomeWorkshop (HW): Was art important to you when you were growing up?
Virginia Fleck (VF): Being an artist, maker and crafter has been central to my identity for as far back as I can remember. I grew up in coastal New England where there is a strong craft tradition. I crafted with anything I could get my hands on especially the sand, seashells, pine cones and chestnuts that were all around us.
We also crafted with what we found around the house, buttons, yarn, fabric, tin foil and pasta of every shape. We were fortunate that my mother who is a seamstress and a crafter herself wasn’t put off by the mess a bunch of kids could make while crafting; in fact she would often up the ante by supplying us with plaster of paris or gold spray paint to enhance our efforts.
HW: How did you first come to work in the mandala symbol/shape?
VF: I made my first mandala by mistake. I was intending to make an inflatable plastic bag sculpture by stitching together two flat circles of plastic bag art. After laboring for days, I finished the first half of the round inflatable; a 10 ft dia. circle made from plastic bags based on the wagon wheel quilt design. I pinned it to the wall for safe keeping in my flood prone studio and went home for the evening.
When I returned the next day with fresh eyes and bright daylight, I realized that what I made was a mandala. I didn’t know much about mandalas – I had seen them in yoga studios and I knew that Buddhist monks made amazingly intricate mandalas out of colored sand.
I started researching what a mandala was and wasn’t. I learned that a mandala is not sacred per se, but they do show up in about every religion or spiritual practice. Traditional mandalas are a universal tool for meditation, typically composed of decorative, symmetrical patterns and carefully chosen imagery that guides you in your meditation.
I thought that using plastic bags would certainly add a contemporary narrative to the mandalas – especially if the “carefully chosen imagery” was all logos, store names and the plethora of consumer messages imprinted on each bag.
HW: Your mandalas are reminiscent of quilts — did you ever create fabric quilts?
VF: I was always drawn to the colors and patterns of quilts but I was an utter failure at making them in the traditional ways. In my current work I have re-visited the practice of quilt making- in a non-traditional way; plastic bags are my “fabric” and tape is my “thread”.
HW: What led you to recycle materials in your work, and specifically to the plastic shopping bag?
VF: Necessity is the mother of invention! Trash picking and dumpster diving was a practical choice for me as an art student, we used whatever free or low cost materials we could get our hands on. I continued to work with found objects over the years and now I can see the “art potential” in almost anything I look at.
I started using plastic bags in 2002 because I wanted to make a giant inflatable pillow for a show titled Dreams and Nightmares. I scoured the fabric and thrift stores but couldn’t find any fabric that seemed right.
I had a “eureka moment” while looking in my pantry, where on the floor there were plastic bags stuffed into plastic bags, waiting to be recycled. I figured out how to work with them and I created a room sized inflatable The Dream Dreamed Me for this show made entirely out of plastic bags, taped and sewn together.
HW: What do you hope viewers of your work might take away from experiencing it?
VF: Mandalas are believed to heal, inspire, reveal and awaken. I couldn’t hope for much more than that!
Given that each mandala is made from thousands of pieces of plastic bags, I hope that they are an intriguing call to action regarding plastic pollution and that they serve as a nudge to viewers to examine their own habits and consumption.
I also hope that people might be inspired to tap into their own creativity and see the hidden beauty in the overlooked, disposable materials that continually pass through our hands.
HW: Did you enjoy inspiring the Teenage Eco Warriors? I bet they really took to the projects you led.
VF: Mostly they inspired me. In the beginning, when I had more of a directing role with the group, I gave them challenges such as “look beyond the bake sale model of fundraising” or “how can you make reusable totes from used plastic bags?”
They might not have ever thought to challenge themselves in those ways but I never would have thought of the inspired solutions to those challenges that they came up with. They bring their creativity and shared sense of humor to everything they do. I stepped back my leadership as they got older and now as high school seniors, they run the organization and blog themselves. I hope that other small groups of friends will be inspired into action by the Teenage Eco Warriors.