A Community Responds to Pervasive Plastic
An event every week that begins at 12:00 am on Sunday and Saturday, repeating until October 31, 2021
Collaborative Public Art Project Transforms Thousands of Plastic Bags Into Year-Long Environmental Sculpture Installation on Arlington Bikeway
People across the globe produce over 300 million tons of plastic a year. Half of this plastic is used only once and then heads for the world’s oceans. Over the last year, the community of Arlington, Mass. succeeded in diverting a portion of this deadly waste, transforming thousands of plastic bags into an innovative and beautiful public art project with an environmental message. Led by Arlington’s first Artist-in-Residence Michelle Lougee, and entitled Persistence, this installation is the latest and largest commission for Pathways, a four-year old initiative organized by the Arlington Commission for Arts and Culture (ACAC) to bring public art to the Minuteman Bikeway in the Town’s Cultural District.
Michelle Lougee thinks about plastic, and not just on occasion. In fact, the Cambridge-based fiber artist and sculptor is obsessed by it, struck that its very existence has inflicted so much permanent harm on our natural environment. As she is often prone to say: “Plastic never really goes away.”
This has led Lougee to develop techniques calling out plastic pollution. She cuts plastic bags into “plarn” (plastic yarn) and uses simple crochet techniques to create intricate and eye-catching sculpture influenced by forms found in nature – seed pods, nests and ocean creatures. For this Arlington project, which is installed near scenic Spy Pond, Lougee was inspired by the microorganisms found in a single drop of water.
Lougee typically makes her sculpture alone and exhibits in gallery spaces. Arlington’s Public Art Curator, Cecily Miller, conceived of a plan to bring Lougee to the Town for ACAC’s first Artist-in-Residence project. By enlisting community volunteers as collaborators, Lougee would be able to scale up her work and take over a section of the Minuteman Bikeway, one of the most heavily used public spaces in the Town.
The project concept built upon Arlington’s green spirit. Reduce, reuse, recycle has become a town mantra thanks to volunteer-led compost initiatives and textile bins, fix-it clinics and clothing swaps. And single-use plastic has been targeted for elimination. Arlington youth led the way when “Green Team” 4th graders organized to ban plastic straws from their school lunchroom; the adults of Zero Waste Arlington worked to ban single-use plastic bags and went on to eliminate polystyrene takeout containers. Miller saw the potential to mobilize Arlington’s environmental activists to join crafters and local artists to support Lougee’s vision.
ACAC partnered with 20 local organizations and volunteer groups to get the word out to people of all ages and abilities beginning in the fall of 2019. The Town’s Library hosted a rousing welcoming reception for Lougee in December, inspiring many locals, both experienced crafters and beginners, to dive right in, attending a variety of crochet workshops, meet-ups and plarn bees.
As winter unfolded, more experienced mentors provided extra help for newbies, with everyone involved becoming more adept at using plarn to make separate components. Volunteers made five shapes – funnels, bowls, cups, squares and tubes – which would be configured by Lougee into playful abstract “creatures” – based on dinoflagellates, tardigrades and other harmless organisms normally visible only by microscope.
Word spread quickly throughout the town, resulting in more and more folks getting involved. Momentum was building and by early March 2020, ACAC was reaching out to just about every resident and organization in town, from the DPW’s recycling department to the Council on Aging to local schools and the Scouts, to join in and contribute to Persistence.
Then, in mid-March, that momentum ground to a halt with the pandemic; the vision of a summer installation flew right out the window. Lougee and Miller began to recalibrate. In-person meetings were out. And, how about sharing plarn? Could that spread infection? The project moved forward carefully, quarantining materials and shifting community engagement online. Volunteer collaborators had to suddenly redirect their attentions to more pressing concerns; on top of homeschooling kids, caring for vulnerable relatives and shifts in employment, many mobilized to make masks for front-line workers. Nevertheless, with a new installation timeline extending into Fall 2020, and additional participants discovered along the way, everyone involved persisted.
Ultimately, despite COVID-19, more than 100 participants collected thousands of plastic bags, sorted them by color and weight, cut them into skeins of plarn and crocheted 600 components. Lougee assembled these smaller shapes into 37 unique sculptures; on view for one year, suspended from trees, the colorful forms vary in size and shape with the largest being six feet in length.
While these whimsical sculptures are reminiscent of the benign inhabitants of Spy Pond and other Arlington waterways, they are also fashioned to warn viewers of more sinister objects found in these same waterways: microplastics. Microplastics invade the ecosystem and “persist” in nature. Microplastics do not biodegrade; instead, mistaken for microorganisms, they enter the food chain. One consequence, by some estimates, humans currently ingest half a pound of plastic a year.
It’s appropriate that the culminating installation of Michelle Lougee’s residency was dubbed Persistence. It not only took “forever” trash and made it beautiful to behold. The title also reflects the determination it would take for all the local collaborators to see this project through to its fruition, no matter what. And it refers as well to the persistence that will be required going forward to continue the fight against plastic pollution in our environment.
PERSISTENCE: a community-based public art project responding to pervasive plastic pollution created by fiber artist Michelle Lougee with more than 100 volunteers and 20 collaborating organizations. 37 sculptures crocheted from plastic bags are suspended from select trees located along the Minuteman Bikeway, between Swan Way and Linwood Street (near Spy Pond Park), Arlington, MA 02474. On view through Oct. 31, 2021. Free and open to all. Visit ArtsArlington.org/Persistence.