Reflections by Emma Gabriel,
Art Director for Art Relief International
Chiang Mai, Thailand
When Lee Lee first approached us about Debris I got really excited about the ecology and the message of her international project. Aiming to teach about the global impacts of single use plastic on not only the environment but on us as humans, her logic is to bring the message to youth. They are the young questioning and open minds of the future who will help us to unveil just how harshly this material is affecting everything. Lee Lee collects images of the pieces that have been created and continues to set up interactive installations at galleries and educational institutions around the world to bring awareness to the cause.
While she was doing a residency in Chiang Mai, we got the chance to meet with her and learn more about Debris. During our first workshop with her, we also learned that she keeps the art making process very open ended. She first teaches about how marine life are suffering from ingesting toxins from the plastic, which then translates to chemical burdens in land dwelling animals and humans. Once the participants have understood this, she asks them to create a piece of art inspired by these teachings. She brings along bottle caps, straws, and other forms of plastic that she has collected in Chiang Mai, making the project very localized. Usually, she says, she allows the student to collect used plastic from their homes during a specific time period for them to really understand the amount of plastic that we actually use. Another important material she encourages for this project is fused plastic bags that make a stronger plastic and can look quite beautiful. She teaches older students how this process works and encourages them to use their creativity to find beauty in this so called waste.
After collaborating with Lee Lee at Wat Meun Neun Kong during our weekly visit to host a drop in after school arts class, we could see that this project could raise a lot of awareness about the use of plastic. I come from North America, where plastic usage is beginning to be understood and it’s common for people to use their own bags for groceries, and to use a stronger bottle to carry water instead of buying something off the shelf, among other things. But in places like Thailand there isn’t a lot of awareness about the usage of plastic and every trip to a 7/11 or a street food vendor means you’ll collect more than one plastic bag before getting the chance to say you don’t want a bag in the first place, not to mention all the wrapping and packaging of each item. The awareness just isn’t there. So we tried to bring the project to all of the public schools we work with in Chiang Mai including Wat Pa Pao, Wat Kuang Sing, and Wat Ku Kam hoping that we could bring some awareness to them in a creative way.
The students all responded very positively to the process. They seemed to get inspiration from all the plastic and focused intently on their pieces. Because of the ever changing nature of the ocean, Lee Lee allows the students to combine different materials in different ways without glueing them down. We tried to be quick with our cameras to catch some of the interesting creations that the students experimented with.
Once we had reached out to the students, we sent the photos to Lee Lee for her to rework them. We had the opportunity to include the Debris project in our annual exhibition so we showcased the photos outside of a large metal framed bottle filled with plastic (all collected from what we used at our office). This was such a collaborative piece that so many people got to be a part of and we are so happy to have been able to bring this project to the community in such a way.
We also got the chance to work with John and the kids from the Stratton ABC foundation who were working on their own very special version of the project. The kids came up with the idea to create a plastic demon made solely out of plastic. When we arrived to give them a hand they were just finishing this step and were looking for ways to keep him strong and supported. We added some wire to secure his body to a chair and his head to his body and when we returned the second time, Chevy the demon had skin and a face and he was alive and well. We all painted his environment outside on one of the foundation’s walls where he is emerging from the flames of a plastic landfill, ready to warn us about the dangers of plastic.
A big thank you to Lee Lee for reaching out to us here in Chiang Mai.
We hope the project continues to educate and inspire people to make a change, daily.