Waste Land: Plastic Garbage Portraits by Tess Felix
One of my great pleasures is going to Stinson Beach to get my hair cut by the extraordinarily talented artist Tess Felix Greene. Instead of being just another head passing through a snooty salon, I get to sit in her art-filled home and chat about her latest projects. For the last year or so, Tess has been making intricate portraits using plastic beach debris. It’s been fascinating to see the evolution of these pieces, so I thought I’d ask her a few questions about her creative process.
How did you originally get the idea to start working with plastic garbage? There was a storm in February 2010 that caused massive amounts of plastic debris to empty out of the Delta into the San Francisco Bay. The combination of high tides and rain pulled the garbage and debris out to sea, delivering it on our shores along the coast. I walk my dog on Stinson Beach every day and I had never seen anything like it before. The amount of colorful plastic completely coating the beach was astonishing. The thought came to me that the beach looked like a mosaic. So I picked up some plastic and went home and made a picture of a woman sitting on a settee. I had a vision of blow torching the plastic so it would melt together and become one lovely picture. Instead, all the edges rolled up and came unstuck to the copper sheet metal that I’d glued it to. Disappointed, I brought the piece back down to the beach as a gift back to the sea. Plastic had been reworked into art and I hoped someone would find it. The next day it was gone, so I made another one. And another. My hair clients who visit me at home really liked them, so I kept going. The process is a combination of mosaic and piecing together a puzzle.
Can you describe your creative process from the first flash of inspiration to the finished piece? I first collect the plastic from the beach. Lately I’ve added parking lot scraps. There are a lot of interesting broken bits and pieces in empty urban lots where I have spent many hours standing around on a film crew. Usually along a waterfront somewhere where there are large hangers. I imagine these bits and pieces will end up in the bay anyway.
I wash and sort by color while visions dance though my head of what I want to create. My next project is to see if I can create a portrait only using variations of white. I have found that I have to keep the subject simple, with too much background detail it just looks like a pile of garbage.
I begin by choosing a person that would fit the story that I want to convey. I’ll take photographs and draw an outline of the subject on the canvas. I work closely to the photograph because I follow the light and shadow to get the forms and shapes in the right places. Because my palette is uneven and the colors are limited it’s a challenge to get my intended result.
Sometimes a subject that is a certain color mass inspires me. I have tons of primary color and very little mid tones. I am not attracted to primary color, which poses a big problem when working with plastic. This worked well for the mermaids: greens, blues, oranges and reds.
Once the outline is drawn I lay the canvas flat and begin dropping pieces of color in an area and it spreads from there. Sometimes I start with the background, sometimes the face. I use silicone to adhere the plastic to the canvas, or sheet metal. This is a long and arduous process. I can’t stand away at a distance to look at my progress until the silicone dries hours later. If the piece isn’t working I have to rip it all off and peel silicone off of the plastic and canvas. It’s a mess. It also hurts my back and makes me feel sick. I don’t know why I do it. Actually I do. I do it because I’m good at it. I like the results.
Are you making a deliberate effort to raise people’s awareness about plastic garbage? Once I began my research into plastic production and learning about the gyres in the oceans and the problems with recycling, I felt so overwhelmed and helpless. The huge corporate operations that are churning out toxic waste at an astronomical speed are unstoppable. You can’t get through a day without encountering plastic. Where does it go when you’re finished with it? It’s overwhelming and very scary. I hope that my art will show people that we need to take better care of the environment.
Do you consider yourself an environmentalist? I’m an accidental environmentalist. This form of artistic expression has brought me to awareness that I hadn’t paid much attention to before. I started researching the Pacific Garbage Patch and was horrified by the state of our oceans and sea life. I have changed some habits and now think greener thoughts. I’m beginning to take action.
Has there been anything you’ve learned while working with this material that’s really surprised you? The surprise is that people responded positively to my artwork. I didn’t think much of it at first. It was the feedback that kept me producing new work. Then it took on a life of its own.
What are your future plans for your plastic art? I have a grandiose idea to go to Spain to clean up the Camino of Santiago de Compostela. It’s an ancient pilgrimage walk that crosses the north of Spain. I walked the 900 kilometers last October and was acutely aware of the toilet paper dropped behind every bush and the trash discarded along the way. I would like to bring a photographer and a donkey and collect garbage. I would like to involve children along the way and create an art piece out of the collected trash. 140,000 people a year from all over the world travel the Camino. It would be a great place to spread the message about recycling.