HAF Connects: Sculpting Hats from Plastic Trash
Cleveland-based artist Ron Shelton puts the worldwide plastic problem front and center in both his own art-making and his practice as a curator / convener.
His current exhibit, HAF Connects, is on view now through September 18 at RampArts Gallery, in the 78th Street Studios complex in Cleveland. It’s an exhibit that weaves together multiple threads of ongoing interest for Shelton as artist and curator. HAF Connects takes its name from his long-running curatorial project, High Art Fridays. In 2013, Shelton began to spend each Thursday night perusing the internet in search of artists and works that fit his aesthetic. Each week he’d put together a new virtual exhibit, gathering works by artists from around the world and making the exhibits available on his personal Facebook page. The weekly grind got old, but the idea of making connections with artists continued. He built an enormous network. In 2019, he told CAN that HAF had connected with more than 1800 artists around the world. That’s one thread of interest.
Another of those threads is an article of clothing, the hat. Shelton is a milliner, selling ready-to-wear as well as custom hats over the internet. He makes hats in enormous variety— top hats, ball caps, sailor caps, newsboys, beanies, and more, some of them wildly expressive in their embellishments. Shelton has occasionally reached out to artists in his network by creating a hat exchange: He’d send a basic hat structure—for example, a classic beanie–to any artist for decoration. Then the artist would embellish it and send it back in exchange for a hat decorated by some other artist in the network—perhaps from halfway around the world.
The exhibit at RampArts gathers a dozen artists from Cleveland and around the world to work with a consistent hat form—a conical wire armature, approximately the proportion of a traffic cone. Participants included US-based artists Gina Washington, Loletia Wilson, Chester Hopkins-Bey, Cynthia Minet, Charmaine Spencer, Kole Robinson Brooks, and Meng-Hsuan Wu, as well as Shelton himself, and an international cohort including Thomas Bruce (Ghana), Patrick Tagoe-Turkson (Ghana), Taeyoun Kim (Korea), and Antonio Mena (El Salvador).
The final thread is the ubiquity of plastic trash. That has figured extensively in Shelton’s work, including in his 2018 CAN Triennial installation, Our Plastic World, which still hangs in the main stairwell at 78th Street Studios.
Each artist was challenged to respond to the theme of plastic waste in the world, and so they all incorporated plastic into their designs: containers, toys, cigarette filters, packing material, and more. As a whole, the exhibit calls attention to plastic as a profound global environmental problem. Individually, because of the materials they choose and the ways they use them, the artists’ works point to the variety and ubiquity of plastics, as well as their own interests, connections and concerns.
You could say our society is addicted to plastics, and none made that point more emphatically than Loletia Wilson, who decorated her hat form with plastic fiber cigarette filters. You might think she picked them up like litter, which would in itself be a powerful statement, as cigarette butts are flicked carelessly outside just about every public building in any city, but Wilson’s way of gathering material was more personal than that: she says she got most of those cigarette butts by smoking them. And so most of them have that telltale yellowish brown stain, pulled through the fibers, concentrated in the middle. Some of the butts don’t have that: they are clean, but used nonetheless. They came from a friend, Wilson says, who cut them off the rest of the cigarette, before smoking the tobacco filter-less.
Shelton’s own contribution, Plastic Fire, reveals not only quotidian plastic waste, but also highlights another kind of addiction. It is made from those amber-colored, hard plastic, prescription pill containers. The artist plied them with fire to melt and stretch the plastic into sharp, flame-like tongues, which protrude from all angles of the cone.
Quotidian–referring to something absolutely common, something that happens every day—is a word especially relevant to the plastic problem and to this exhibit. In our frankly disgusting consumer culture, products are not only made from plastic, but in order to be shipped all over the world they are packed in it, too. Charmaine Spencer highlights this aspect of culture in a hat embellished with blocky chunks of packaging Styrofoam—the kind that secures every corner and edge of a new flat-screen TV, or a window unit air conditioner, or just about any large household gadget. Styrofoam like this is made for one purpose—to ensure safe arrival of consumer products. And once that job is done, the vast majority of it ends up in landfills. Ceramic artists and lots of makers have become adept at gathering and recycling Styrofoam peanuts and bubble wrap, recycling it for their own shipping purposes. But with custom cast blocks of Styrofoam like these, that is not especially practical. They are very hard to recycle. Spencer broke big blocks into pieces like chunks of jagged concrete, and attached them all over her conical hat armature. It bears some resemblance to an iceberg, and that quality of icebergs that so often sinks ships—the fact that most of their mass is hidden below the surface of the water, out of sight, out of mind—also seems relevant to the world’s plastic debacle.
Chester Hopkins Bey took inspiration from his son and the kind of plastic toys that just about every child has, and further made connections between the toys themselves and the material they are made from. Of course there are plastic toy soldiers representing the military might spent in the interest in securing oil fields, and of course the oil itself is used in part to make plastic. And of course there are plastic dinosaurs, which we know about because many of them fell into tar pits and were preserved. And of course tar and tar sands are also mined for oil. Hopkins-Bey attached the dinosaurs and soldiers and links of plastic chain in spiraling lines to create a narrative about the cycle of oil and plastic mining and consumption.
All the artists in the exhibit used different kinds of plastic, each providing different lessons about the scope of the plastic problem. Gina Washington (who is a member of CAN’s Board of Directors) points out that while you think Now & Later, Charms Blow Pop, and other candy wrappers are made of waxed paper, they are in fact plastic. She stretched them across the armature like a patchwork quilt of candy wrapper billboards. Meng-Hsuan Wu used mirrored plastic, attached like shingles on a conical roof, which might be interpreted as telling the viewer to look in the mirror for the source of the problem.
Each of these works looks like a lot of plastic waste, but of course they represent just a single artist’s experience during a brief window of time. It is not necessary to point out that the real problem lies in multiplying these quantities across the population of the earth, across the decades during which plastic consumer waste has been accumulating. We’ve all seen and been disgusted by documentaries about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a mass of plastic bits swirling out in the ocean, estimated to cover 1.6 million square kilometers of water, teeming with pieces small enough to get into the food chain. It’s believed to have increased in size ten-fold every decade since 1945. There’s one in the Atlantic, too. It’s an out-of-sight, out-of-mind problem, and our industries and governments work to keep it that way. Perhaps we should thank China for no longer accepting cargo ships of plastic from the US, thereby calling it to our attention. Certainly we should thank Shelton and the rest of these artists for putting the problem right in front of us.