Weaving together anthropology, art, and socio-environmental justice with PhD student Kelsey Merreck Wagner

Weaving made of plastic bags, plastic gloves, and cotton string

Anthropology PhD student Kelsey Merreck Wagner describes her work as living at the nexus of aesthetics, anthropological inquiry of environmental ruin at human hands, and hope for socio-environmental justice. Wagner’s research interests include the cultural norms and institutions that define our human-environment relations and seek pathways towards sustainability and coexistence. She is especially interested in culture and meaning, and how humans mediate the environment through cultural systems of action. This approach attends to issues of intersectionality, agency, sustainability, and cultural change. In her investigation of these issues, Wagner utilizes arts-based interventions—such as gallery exhibits, community projects, and multimedia—to raise awareness about ecological issues and move towards social and environmental justice.

Wagner’s primary research focuses on human-elephant conflict in Southeast Asia, a problem exacerbated by globalized capitalist practices, increasing urbanization, and neoliberal tendencies to divide and manipulate the environments humans and animals share. While unable to travel for research this past summer due to the pandemic, Wagner has continued her arts-based activism through a trash and textiles project she calls “Loom & Doom.” Using plastic bags collected from other people, she creates weavings that speak to the enormity of the planet’s plastic habit.

This project has allowed Wagner to initiate a mini-ethnography on plastic consumption. Some of her most environmentally concerned friends have nothing to contribute because they do not use plastic, while others donate their plastic after they have reused it multiple times, still others have endless new bags to provide each week. Wagner sees each exchange as helping to contextualize the way our actions affect the environment. The process of weaving abandoned mediums into a narrative of human-product-environmental relations points to the complex web of ecology we live in, destroy, and seek to protect.

Wagner sees the arts as a powerful means of activism, drawing attention and bearing witness to structural inequities and environmental catastrophes around the world. Currently, Wagner’s weaving and printmaking work is featured in several exhibits, including: #postmarked, Crafting the Future; All Animal Exhibition, Contemporary Art Gallery Online; Catalyst, Michigan State University; and Who are You Voting for? at Woman Made Gallery. Her work has been shown in solo and group shows internationally and across the United States. Before studying at MSU, Wagner worked around the world, operationalizing creative practices as a means of bridging cultures, raising awareness, and celebrating cultural and natural heritage.

Wagner appreciates the mentorship of her advisor Dr. Beth Drexler, who encourages her to continue exploring the intersections between affect, activism, infrastructure, violence, environment, animals, and people. In addition to pursuing her doctorate in Anthropology, Wagner is seeking specializations in Gender, Justice and Environmental Change and Human Animal Studies, as well as a certification in Community-Engaged Research. As anthropological theory drives her research, Wagner also values the incorporation of transdisciplinary knowledge to address social and environmental ills.

After earning her PhD, Wagner would like to work in a community-based capacity, using arts education and programming to connect communities with their environments. Her anthropological training has informed her work at galleries and museums, and she looks forward to bringing a better understanding of human diversity and culture into her curatorial work. Wagner hopes to empower and uplift communities and their unique practices by celebrating creative expression and initiating grassroots activism.

Visit Kelsey’s website kelseymerreckwagner.com to explore and follow her work.


Left—Plastic weaving from Wagner’s “Loom & Doom” series, 2020, media: cotton, plastic bags, plastic gloves.

Right—“From Bangkok to Boone” exhibit, 2017-2018, media: handmade and recycled paper, screenprint ink, india ink, paint, yarn, thread, found objects, vinyl.

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