Vicki Clough Curates

Musings on art and life.

Polymers in Action

Polymers in Action: Socially Engaged Art and the Environment

After years of research into various forms of environmental and sustainable art making methods, Polymers in Action: Socially engaged Art and the Environment finally took shape for my thesis project at the Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCADU) in 2015. I have always been drawn to arts and crafts that reuse discarded objects and materials, restore or enhance their aesthetic appearance and add emotional resonance through a reconnection to materials, but this was different. As I researched art made from recycled/upcaycled/desycled/repurposed materials for my thesis exhibition proposal, I became aware that by only presenting a finished artwork lacked something.

That something was action. By presenting something as finished, it closed a loop for any further engagement with issues that the art was associated with. How do you do something that encourages environmental awareness if your viewers are just looking at something pretty? It didn’t seem like enough. So I started looking at models that use social engagement as a way of forming communities and educating through art making. This action oriented approach appealed to me, because it meant that I got to tap into my craft and teaching skills in a new way and with a new, expanded audience.

Polymers in Action workshops took place at OCAD during January 2015. The level of interest shown by my peers and members of the public was extremely encouraging and led to more than a few fantastic connections. I’m exited to present the workshops on this site and hope to add future projects that come out of this initial run of sessions. I’ve learned a lot from this experience and I hope that I can share this with as many people as possible over the coming months and years. Thank you for visiting and supporting this project and the artists involved.

*a side note on the webhosting. Green Geeks is listed as one of the greenest web hosts in Canada, with carbon offsetting and other nifty environmental policies. They were a no-brainer for the site development and hosted the website for three years prior to moving PiA over to free hosting on WordPress.

Similar Projects

Polymers in Action was inspired by the socially engaged projects being run by artists all over the world. Focus on Project Vortex associated artists, Aurora Robson (USA), Gabriela Bustamante (NL) and Liina Klauss'(CHN)  in particular helped shape the workshop format and audience engagement of this Toronto based initiative. As more relevant practices emerge, they will be added to this page as a resource and reference. You can read about each featured artist below.

A HUGE thank you to all three artists for their time and attention during the research phase of this project. It was an honor to interview them all and their insights were invaluable.

Aurora Robson

Aurora Robson is a Toronto born painter and sculptor. She moved to Hawaii at a young age and later settled in New York, where she now lives and works. Robson’s practice centres around images of nightmarish “blobs” that she used to dream about as a child. She transforms this insidious material into intricate and visually appealing sculptures and helps to remove plastics from the waste stream at the same time. Her aim is to draw attention to the seriousness of plastic waste in the environment through her art and socially engaged projects.

After doing more research into waste plastics, Robson was inspired to share her methods with others and soon started Project Vortex, an online hub for artists and designers all over the world who use waste materials in their work. It functions as a marketing and educational tool, with links to all associated artists and designers websites and NGOs that work towards a more healthy environment. A portion of artwork sales made through the Project Vortex site are directed to programs geared towards environmental cleanup projects.

She also started Project Vortex University and Sculpture & Intercepting the Waste Stream: programs designed for teachers to bring waste plastic art into their classrooms to encourage more environmentally focussed art practices. Robson has run these courses in Central Piedmont Community College and Mary Baldwin Community College, with both culminating in a silent auction of the student’s work.

Ona, 2014, 48″ x 46″ x 40″ plastic debris (PET + HDPE), aluminum rivets, tinted polycrylic + mica powder

Hotrodicus Symbioticus, 2014, 44″ x 42″ x 29″, plastic debris (PET), aluminum rivets, tinted polycrylic + mica powder

Updroplet, 2012, 30″ x 24″ x 24″, plastic debris (PET), rivets, tinted polycrylic + mica powder

For more on Aurora Robson and her work, follow this link.

To hear her speak quite passionately about her practice and message, watch her 2013 TED talk below.

All images belong to the artist and I take no credit for them.

Gabriela Bustamante

Gabriela Bustamante is a Mexican born designer and teacher who lives and works in Amsterdam, Netherlands. From 2006-2011 Bustamante co-ran the design studio Latin Sisters Design Productions (LSDP), with the goal of tackling social issues through adaptable social projects within the city. Local stakeholders, including the local government would approach her team to address problems within communities and they would develop creative strategies for engaging with the residents.

“Desycling” was a series of workshop-style projects where desycle coaches were trained to teach participants how to make a desycled object. During the sessions, participants could make a variety of art, craft and design objects from waste materials, including plastics. The idea was that by educating local coaches in methods of sustainable practice, this knowledge would remain in the area and continue to be shared after the project had ended.

Even though the LSDP has ceased operations in the last few years, Bustamante continues to address issues of sustainable practice through her teaching and other projects she is invited to participate in. In 2013 she took part in the Freezing Favela exhibition, hosted by Mediamatic, a cultural institution and public event site. During this project, Bustamante invited children to make objects like jewellery and jump ropes from discarded plastic bags.


Children making art and craft objects during a “Desycle” workshop

Raincoats “Desycled” from plastic bags


Desycled necklace made with one plastic bag

All images belong to the artist and are used with permission. To learn more about Gabriel and her projects, follow the link to her website.

Liina Klauss

Liina Klauss is a German painter and environmental artist who lives and works in Hong Kong. Klauss has been living on Lantau Island which is predominantly a nature reserve since 2011. She began “painting” with waste materials on the beach after a family camping trip when she became aware of just how much waste was washing ashore and getting tangled in the undergrowth. She has continued to work with waste materials and has expanded her practice to include socially engaged projects that allow locals to play a part in cleanup efforts on the island and surrounding areas.

The projects range in length and content and often she enlists the help of volunteers to attend an art making session on a particular day or weekend. Klauss uses an informal method for engaging with people and her colourful land art and workshop projects are imbued with a sense of fun and wonder at the beauty of nature and the materials being collected. She continues to encourage a reconnection to nature and spread messages of care and connection through her heartwarming initiatives.


‘mind your head’, workshop contribution to Imagine Peace festival, 2014. Lantau Island, Hong Kong.

river of rubbish, Shui Hau, Lantau, Hong Kong, 2014.No.11 of the series trash-land-art

river of rubbish, 2014.    

“All items on this photo are waste washed ashore. they have been collected on one single beach within 24h by 80 people. Colours are neither manipulated manually nor digitally. The reality of pollution you see has merely been rearranged.” Liina Klauss, from her blog.

“catch of the day” or “floating polke-dots” was part of Pangkor Island Festival 2014 (PIF2014) bringing art, awareness and action to this small community on the west coast of Malaysia.

Watch this You Tube video about Liina’s practice and message below.

All images belong to the artist and are used with her permission. You can read more about all of Liina’s projects on her Blog here.

Vicki Clough

Vicki Clough

Vicki is an independent curator and craftsperson with a focus on socially engaged and participatory art and events. In January 2016 she helped launch Reconstructing Resilience, a research and curatorial project that explored various forms of sustainable practice. As a freelance curator she has worked with the Riverdale Hub, Myseum of Totonto/Art Spin and was the Curatorial Director of Figment Toronto from 2014 to 2017. She has also co-curated exhibitions including JAYU's iAM photography project (2016 & 2017), Move to Stillness, for the Harbourfront Centre's Kick Up Your Heels Festival (2015), The Duel, AGO First Thursdays (2014), and What Are You Made Of? OCAD U Graduate Gallery (2013). She initiated the Toronto based workshop model and website Polymers in Action: Socially Engaged Art and the Environment as part of her studies at OCAD University, where she obtained her Master of Fine Arts degree in Criticism and Curatorial Practice. She publishes on anything that interests her deeply and moves her to the point of lengthy verbal expression.

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