Tess Lockey was appalled when she learned about microplastics, so she decided to take action through art.
Did you know that more than 90% of the world’s most popular bottled water brands contain tiny pieces of plastic?
Neither did Tess Lockey, but when she first started learning about microplastics (and hearing statistics scarily similar to that World Health Organization percentage) in her Ecology of Water class in the fall 2017, her response wasn’t positive.
“We’re screwed,” she says with a nervous laugh. “It made me feel helpless. What can we do?”
The junior illustration major (now a senior) at Ringling College of Art and Design pondered that question until she thought of an action she could take on her own campus. She decided to pitch the idea for a microplastics exhibit to the school’s Curator of Exhibitions Mark Ormond.
BREAKING IT DOWN
Microplastics are small pieces of plastic sized 5 mm or less that are either manufactured that size or degraded from larger objects, according to “Contaminants in the Urban Environment: Microplastics” by the University of Florida.
One example are the small plastic pieces that result from the degradation of larger plastic items made from polyethylene (such as plastic bags and water bottles), polystyrene (food containers), nylon, polypropylene (fabrics), or polyvinyl chloride (water pipes).
The academic article also gives the example of nurdles, which are preproduction resin pellets used in the manufacture of plastic items. The third example are microbeads, which are put in several cosmetic products such as toothpaste to add color, shine or simply as a filler.
UF’s Florida Microplastic Awareness Project says these plastics are harmful because they absorb toxic chemicals when they’re manufactured or when they come into contact with seawater. This is particularly concerning because they’re extremely resilient — they never biodegrade — and are thus easily eaten by marine life that can die of starvation after having the plastic sit in its stomach and make it feel full.
The academic article goes on to say the effects on humans are still being researched, but microplastics can easily be ingested whenever humans injest sea salt, eat fish (even canned fish, according to “Science of The Total Environment”) or brush their teeth.
TAKING THE PLUNGE
In January, Lockey saw Ormond giving a tour to some student workers. In a split-second decision, she jumped in the back of the tour and waited until it ended to ask if he had some time to talk.
It worked. They scheduled a meeting for soon after, and Ormond was sold on her idea.
“She was very prepared,” he says. “She came in with notes and talked for a half hour then I just said ‘OK!’ ... It’s rare for a student to come to me with a full-blown proposal.”
Lockey laughs humbly. She was beyond nervous, she assures us, but she had typed out a 10-page document in preparation. Prepared indeed.
Her original idea — before approaching Ormond — was actually for an Instagram project, but she soon decided this was a subject that deserved its own show in a gallery. Having that quiet space for reflection is important, she says, because it offers the community a more direct and engaging experience.
Lockey had never put together an exhibit. She’s a 21-year-old art student born in Hong Kong and raised in the Philippines. Ormond, who has more than 25 years of experience in the art world, is the curator. But he says he just helped facilitate.
“I hope Tess inspires other students — and faculty — to come to me with exhibit ideas,” he says.
One idea that emerged from their discussions was to have Abbey Tyrna, water resources agent for The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Sarasota Extension, lead the exhibit’s informational session after Lockey put out a call to artists.
It was Tyrna who had visited her Ecology of Water class the fall prior and given Lockey her first look into the reality of microplastics, so it made sense to have her explain the theme of the exhibit to interested students.
Ormond says one of the scariest aspects of organizing an exhibit based solely on an open call to student artists is you never know what you’re going to get. But her classmates came through.
The result is a dynamic exhibit with 20 pieces ranging from illustrated infographics to coloring books to a singing fish covered in trash.
Some of the selected works come from final projects created for the same Ecology of Water class that sparked Lockey’s interest.
One student even submitted a piece, “Little Pink Houses,” by Nick Dahil, that embraced the idea of a plastic-filled future. Lockey loved seeing someone playing devil’s advocate, because for the exhibit’s creator, the show is all about different voices on the same subject.
“I told them (artists) to react to what they read,” she says. “Some went more informational and some went more emotional … I want people to feel informed, not overwhelmed.”
Lockey believes the more people are exposed to both facts and opinions regarding microplastics, the more they’ll be inclined to make small changes in their everyday life. Whether that means bringing a reusable bag to the grocery store or buying cotton clothes rather than microfiber, she hopes people think twice about their relationship with plastics after seeing this exhibit.
“People don’t usually see science in a gallery,” Lockey adds. “I think a lot of the time information like this is seen in a medium that’s very text heavy ... but if you see an image first, people are more inclined to get into it.”
Watching it all come together was exhilarating for Lockey.
“Seeing the first submissions come in was like Christmas all day,” she says with an ear-to-ear grin.
She was surprised how word spread as students saw friends working on pieces. Several such students asked to submit their own work past the deadline because they heard about it later, and Lockey happily obliged.
SPREADING THE WORD
Ormond is always happy to see students like Lockey utilizing their time on campus as a period for experimentation. He equates the college to one big laboratory for creative minds to try new methods and new aspects of art, and that’s exactly what Lockey is doing by organizing this exhibit.
She’s also exploring a subject that is particularly relevant to her current home. Being a coastal city — especially one with beaches that turtles like to nest on — Sarasota is physically closer to the issue. Water bottles and other plastics are constantly found littering local bodies of water, and tourists and locals alike flock to seafood restaurants boasting fresh fish that might have freshly swallowed plastic.
“When you see a creature tangled in plastic, their life was compromised by us,” Ormond says.
But whether you live near a coast or not, Lockey says the subject of microplastics is important. And with a mix of informational material and artistic representations, she hopes to kickstart a conversation about the harmful substances.
One way she’ll do that is by welcoming visitors to engage with a participatory area of the exhibit that will feature three questions-statements on a wall — “Are you plastic aware?” “I pledge ...” and “A message to my fellow man.”
Visitors are welcome to respond to the questions-statements and post their written responses on the wall for others to see.
“I want people to interact with the space,” Lockey says. “I want to give them a voice as well.”
And if they’re like Ormond, their voice will be loud, because even the thought of microfiber sheets makes him shudder.
“I can’t stomach that — I don’t want to spend eight hours enveloped in oil.”
Correction: The print version of this story stated the incorrect year Tess Lockey is currently in as a student at Ringling College of Art and Design.