Ph.D. Candidate Kelsey Merreck Wagner’s Artwork Featured in Exhibit

Department of Anthropology Ph.D. candidate Kelsey Merreck Wagner’s artwork is currently featured in a two-person exhibit hosted by the Evanston Art Center in Evanston, Illinois. The exhibit is titled “You’re Not Really Seeing This” and will be on display through April 22, 2024. Kelsey’s work utilizes plastics and other recycled material through the medium of weaving to bring new life to trash.

Asked what inspired the project, Kelsey shared:

“I started weaving with plastic and recycled materials during the pandemic in 2019 which morphed into a large ethnographic art project wherein I collected materials from my community members, my household, family, friends, and river clean-ups. This has provided me the opportunity to engage in valuable discussions about the links between plastic pollution, waste management, capitalism and consumerism, and human impact on the environment. “

Kelsey’s Ph.D. dissertation involves the role Thai eco-activists play in environmental movements. “The work of these eco-artivists is especially salient in authoritarian contexts,” she says, “where negative discourse about the actions of the government and their corporate partners is heavily silenced and dissent is met with danger. During my fieldwork, I have not only interviewed many of these artists, but also built lifelong friendships and collaborations, including the co-founding of the ART WORMS Mekong Artist Collective. The collective engages in arts-based research along the Mekong River, allowing me the support and resources to continue my trash weaving project with an international team.”

The weavings are made with a cotton warp; and the weft is made from plastic and other recycled materials. The materials have been collected by the artist and her friends and family in the United States, Thailand, Laos, and Indonesia. The materials come from “corporate culprits” including companies like: Coca-Cola Company, Asia Golden Rice Company, Ulta, Hershey, Kroger, Walmart, Charmin, Amazon, Jockey, 7-Eleven, Procter & Gamble, Siam Golden Rice Company, Hanes, Sirinumma Company, Food Lion, Apple, Samsung, Hobby Lobby, Colgate-Palmolive, Nestlé, and Lays. Materials in these weavings will include things like: plastic shopping bags, flagging tape, plastic tablecloths, mesh produce bags, rice bags, feed bags, fertilizer bags, cables and wires, quilting waste, yarn waste, curtains, old clothing, holiday decorations, food packaging, rain ponchos, balloons, bubble wrap, packaging materials, and fishing nets.

Kelsey said, “My plastic weavings have been exhibited in a range of group shows, including at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum for Grand Rapids ArtPrize, and the 1.5 Degrees Celsius exhibit at the Michigan State University Museum. I have also had solo exhibits of these weavings at the Langley Arts Council in British Columbia, Canada; the Chenango Arts Council in Norwich, New York; the Marathon Center for the Performing Arts in Findlay, Ohio; and the East Lubbock Art House in Lubbock, Texas. These exhibits featured smaller weavings created on my rigid heddle loom, which has since been supplemented by a large tapestry loom and a 4-harness floor loom, allowing me to create plastic weavings that are over 40 feet long. I currently have a solo exhibit upcoming this April at Warin Lab Contemporary Gallery in Bangkok, Thailand that will feature 5 of the large-scale weavings in red/orange/yellow colors to connect plastic pollution to climate change.”

For more information, see the stories featured in The Evanston Art Center website or The Visualist, or see Kelsey’s website.