Plastic is so ubiquitous in the modern era that it's easy to ignore. According to Scientific American Magazine, Americans use 92 billion disposable plastic bags each year, and since the material was first invented, we've made some 6 billion tons of the stuff, with many of it winding up in landfills. Some scientists have even gone as far as to suggest that plastic could be the defining material of our epoch: Once there was the Stone Age — now we live in the Plastic Age.
Amid this ubiquity, Bloomfield Township-based artist Mary Adkisson looked at a bag one day and saw possibility. "I looked at this plastic bag of frozen peas at some point, and I just thought, 'I love these colors,'" she says. "Not necessarily the combinations of the colors — because they're meant to get your attention, but not necessarily be a thing of beauty."
After retiring after a career as an industrial designer in 2007 (mostly designing exhibitions, though in college she says she designed pinball games for Atari), Adkisson says she started experimenting with cutting the plastic into strips and winding it around itself. Soon, she was filling her house with bold, circular works of art — made entirely out of reclaimed plastic bags. "That's the thing I love about plastic, it's so flexible," she says. "And there's just so much of it."
A larger piece, Adkisson says, could take more than two months of work, and countless strips of plastic. She says she doesn't sketch her designs beforehand, but gets a lot of ideas for color combinations from nature. "If something hits me on a walk, it gets me really inspired to want to imitate what I see," she says. 'It could be something that I'd just seen for even a minute, and it's like stamped in my head."
For her process, Adkisson first prepares a library of strips of plastic. She cuts the seams of the bags, laying them flat, and cuts them into strips. The strips are then separated by predominant colors, and stored in her "flat files"(old pizza boxes).
Adkisson says she soon became known as a local recycling center of sorts, with everyone who knows what she does and how she works eventually donating their old bags. A lot of them, she says, say they had never thought much about recycling before.
"Now they look at that and they think, 'Well, at the very least, let me save these for Mary,'" she says. "It always feels like I'm getting Christmas gifts every time."
Through April 20, Adkisson is collecting plastic bag donations through Birmingham's Robert Kidd Gallery. Donators will have their photo taken, and their names will be listed on the back of the piece Adkisson will create using the material. Their names will also be posted on the Robert Kidd Gallery's website.
Adkisson has an artist's reception from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on April 20 at Robert Kidd Gallery, 107 Townsend St., Birmingham; 248-642-3909; robertkiddgallery.com. The gallery is accepting bag donations through April 22.