The word “plastic,” like the material it describes, can take on a variety of functions.
Besides being the name given to any one of the range of chemical synthetics that shape much of the world around us, it’s also the generic noun we use for what’s in our wallets besides actual money as well as the adjective we use to denote a personality trait or a talent for adaptation. For Charlotte artist David Edgar, who recently relocated to Landrum, SC, plastic is both material and metaphor, appearing in the forms that inhabit his “Plastiquarium,” a collection of aquatic creatures made from recycled plastic.
An imaginative combination of Pop art, folk art and ingenious craftsmanship, the Plastiquarium’s inhabitants carry the brilliant colors of their source material and the streamlined shapes of their natural counterparts. “The fish shapes emerged from the curvilinear shapes of the bottles, and all colors are the actual color of the materials themselves,” David explains. But beyond the eye appeal and the smiles the objects inspire lies a sly comment on our recycled culture. “I’ve grown to view the creatures of the Plastiquarium as emerging species that are somehow genetically mimicking the packaging of products that are polluting our marine environment,” David postulates. “Perhaps they’re even a mutated reanimation of the fossil elements themselves that formed the petroleum that plastics are made from.”
At 56, David is recently retired from a teaching position at UNC Charlotte, where he was an associate professor of art for five years after serving as the chair of the art department at Ashland University in Ohio. “I think teaching stimulates and energizes my art-making,” David says of his teaching years. “The activities of your students and faculty colleagues stimulate your creative action.”
Before the Plastiquarium pieces came along, that creative stimulus produced a series of fabricated steel sculptures that bear the collective title of Witness, created around a central theme of emotional strength and resilience. Influenced by the formalist sculptures of Giacometti and David Smith, the pieces combine rigid linear shapes with undulating projections that counteract the density of the material, as if the artist was struggling against the physical restrictions of his medium. “The steel work was weighty beyond its industrial characteristics, and the gravity was beginning to feel too stoic and sober for my outlook on life,” David says of the Witness series. “At the time, I don’t think I was aware of how much I needed to break out of the formalism, until 2004, when the muses took me into the world of recycled plastics.”
Even with the switch to an infinitely more mundane medium, shreds of formal art-making clung to the new work. “I used to think that I wanted to protect this work as my personal intellectual property, but came to realize that was folly,” David says. “I’m more interested in securing a place in the vanguard of what I see as a new contemporary craft art form. Sort of the Johnny Appleseed of recycled plastic art.”
To that end, David has co-authored with his wife Robin Fantastic Recycled Plastic, to be released this month. The 140-page book offers a collection of do-it-yourself art projects based on the same materials used for the Plastiquarium — detergent bottles, yogurt containers, water bottles. The projects include toys like airplanes and cars, a jellyfish lamp, jewelry and pins and, yes, fish. The book adds the “folk” to the folk arts ethic of the Plastiquarium pieces and brings a personal element from David’s training to bear. “While I was in graduate school, my sculpture teacher and his wife had put together a major collection of folk art that now belongs to the Milwaukee Museum. I often house-sat for them when they traveled and had many long hours enjoying their collection.”
Also figuring in the creation of the Plastiquarium’s fanciful menagerie is David’s former tenure with Disney Imagineering as a craftsman for EPCOT Center in Florida and for Tokyo Disneyland. And there was the support from his family, no small factor in deciding on a career in the arts. “My father was an artist/designer at heart, but he sacrificed his creative career aspirations to support the family while I was growing up in Gainesville, Florida,” David says. “He was always supportive of my career choice, and sometimes I feel as though he lived part of his artistic life vicariously through my work.”
Future art historians may come to regard David as one of the pioneers of a new art form, as others have joined him in his attraction to recycled plastics. The artists Miwa Koizumi and Aurora Robson are represented along with David in the exhibition Trash Menagerie, now at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, demonstrating the validity of our collective throw aways as the raw material for new forms of art. “I’m heartened that the Plastiquarium makes people smile,” David says. “While joyful in outward appearance, there is still plenty of meaningful content worthy of personal reflection.”