Maria Phillips

Maria Phillips

Hidden in Plain Sight

Hidden in Plain Sight

Maria Phillips returns to BAM for a solo exhibition following her award-winning work in BAM Biennial 2016: Metalmorphosis. The exhibition marks a new direction for Phillips’ practice. In contrast to her biennial work in metal, Hidden in Plain Sight presents work made from recycled materials, inspired by a five-month residency at Recology’s material recovery facility in Seattle.

Recycling has become a daily routine for many of us in modern Western societies, yet the origin and future of these materials is far more complex than we might realize. Once recycled, items begin a new journey, either as commodity material or waste destined for the landfill. Materials that can be given a new life are sorted, baled, and sold to the highest bidder.

What remains is contaminated material, or for a myriad of reasons, material unsuitable for processing—all of which will end up in the landfill.

As an Artist-in-Residence at Recology, Phillips intercepted items that would otherwise have gone to the landfill away from their inevitable future. The resulting works are reimagined and re-contextualized items whose next life draws our attention to their fate, sheer quantity, and initial purpose.

By focusing on single-use items and objects that have little or no repurposing value, Phillips questions their very necessity. These objects—paper cups, plastic liners, and a variety of packaging materials—surround us like a silent ticking bomb, quiet reminders of the excesses of consumer society and the urgent need for a global response to the ecological situation our societies face.

About the Artist

Maria Phillips is an artist and educator based in Seattle, Washington. Born in St. Louis, MO, Maria received her BA from Loyola University in New Orleans and her MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle. Her work is included in the collections of the Museum of Art and Design New York, the Renwick Gallery - Smithsonian American Art Museum, Tacoma Art Museum, Rotassa Foundation, and numerous private collections. Maria’s work has been published in the books The Art of Enameling, 1000 Rings and 500 Brooches, and The Penland Book of Jewelry in which she wrote a chapter on the process of Electroforming. In 2016, she was awarded the John and Joyce Price Award of Excellence from Bellevue Arts Museum and invited to return for a solo exhibition.


Interview: Curator Lucile Chich & Artist Maria Phillips


Lucile Chich: I was introduced to your work through your installation for the metal biennial here at Bellevue Arts Museum (Mapping Monotony, BAM Biennial 2016: Metalmorphosis), for which you received the John & Joyce Price Award of Excellence. I mention that installation because it is the common thread that leads to this new body of work, as the award granted you the opportunity for a solo exhibition at BAM. Now, you’re working entirely in plastic, yet the work is still immersive and in situ. Can you talk about this shift in materials and what it means to you? Do you see a correlation between the projects?

Maria Phillips: At the heart of my practice is my love of materials, their inherent meanings, uses, and how they can be manipulated and subverted into something unexpected or different. For Metalmorphosis, I chose to work with steel, a metal I usually think of as heavy, structurally sound, industrial. I wanted to go in the opposite direction and take advantage of its ductile qualities, using fine wire that was bouncy, animated, and delicate to create a 3-dimensional drawing.

The desire and need to be challenged by the qualities a new material presents is also central to my practice—the problem solving that happens in order to transform it from one thing to another or to remove it entirely from its original context in hopes of seeing it in a new way. I like to discover how it can communicate beyond its original intention.

Moving from steel to plastic, the correlation for me is in the intense material commitment, although they couldn’t be more different. Steel is capable of being endlessly recycled, so that installation would essentially have no waste or environmental impact because the entire piece could be “recycled.”

For a long time, I’ve been very conscious of my output as an artist, not wanting to be making and making and having all of this byproduct as a part of my practice. Plastic presents a new set of problems and concerns for me, which I’m trying to understand through this new work.

LC: Would you call your residency at Recology a defining moment in your career, then?

MP: Before the residency at Recology, I considered myself a fairly informed recycler, but only from my own point of view. The Material Recovery Facility, aka the MRF, is where a great deal of King County’s recycling is processed, and the residency is located right in the midst of the whole recycling operation. It is eye opening, wildly overwhelming, but also energizing. The MRF really spoke to me, despite the smell, the noise, the dust, and the 250K tons of waste that move through every day.

Recology is working hard to sort and keep as much material out of the landfill as possible. It opened my eyes to the global issue of recycling and in doing so redirected my work, my attitude, and my understanding of this vast global system. I am working hard to understand my role, how I can help other people see the urgent need to recognize their part in this system. I want to expose the pervasiveness of the material waste and our offhanded daily contributions. The residency came at a time when I was at a crossroads in my art practice, questioning how I could shift it conceptually as well as formally to continue working with an issue that is both challenging and purposeful.

LC: It’s being suggested that we’re approaching a new epoch, the Anthropocene. This is being defined as a geological moment of time when direct human impact on our ecosystem is actively changing our environment. Your work shows a passionate interest in this subject, by focusing on single-use plastic items. Can you speak to that?

MP: I think that the recent discovery of plastic particles in rainfall in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado has cemented the proposition that we have entered, in fact created, this new epoch, the Anthropocene. There is an alternative term for this epoch being used: Plasticene, which directly points to the overwhelming amount of plastic that exists in our natural environments. Plastic is being discovered everywhere: in sediment, rivers, oceans, fish, and now the atmosphere. I am well aware of the positive aspects of this material, but we have gone way overboard with

The artist working in her studio disposability, design obsolescence, convenience, and lack of management of our waste. I read the other day that there are more microplastics in the ocean than there are stars in the Milky Way. It’s too much to even imagine.

During the residency, I worked with single use to-go cups that are both paper and plastic, aka mixed paper. This accounts for the most generated “recyclable”— even more than plastic. It is so low grade and hard to process, it ends up in landfills. During and after the residency, I’ve been extra alert to the waste flow happening in front of me, in my own household and in all the households around me.

LC: Over the last year, you used your household as the place where you collected your materials. But it didn’t stop there. Can you tell us about this experience and how it expanded?

MP: In the beginning, I was collecting everything: junk mail, catalogues, packaging, stickers, all of the “stuff,” every little bit. I initially thought I would use the catalogues as pedestals but quickly realized that I would need many, many more. I started reaching out to my friends, looping them in for this one aspect of the project. When I decided to switch my focus to working primarily with plastics, they of course switched with me. It became a problem—I couldn’t reject donations because that would send the material straight to the landfill. I considered it a rescue mission of sorts. Allowing pieces of my larger “family,” my community, to make their way into the work served the broader purpose of activating more people. My neighbors and friends started looking more closely at their own footprint, questioning and shifting their choices. Now people say, “I thought of you when I got to-go food that came in Styrofoam, and a plastic bag, and plastic utensils...” or “because of your last exhibition, I stopped buying coffee out unless I have my reusable cup”. At the end of the day, it is about shifting our consumption behaviors, which will collectively generate a shift in the larger system.

LC: We talked in an earlier conversation about the need for a paradigm shift in the way we as a society apprehend the change that’s needed in how we approach material, even down to the way we think about recycling. At the Recology residency, working in the MRF, you were seeing how all the materials across the city come in as recycling, get sorted, and eventually sold as part of our recycling system. What did this make you think about the process, how we approach material, how we recycle in our homes?

MP: I saw a lot of “wish-cycling” happening—shoes, food, textiles, electronics, anything plastic was being “recycled” because people think, “It’s plastic,” and that it can be recycled. Well, it can’t be. It’s tricky because the recycling guidelines are changing all of the time to keep up with global shifts in the market and with who is willing to take our country’s waste. It reminds me of the public service advertisements of the seventies and eighties: a cartoon owl tried to educate us to “give a hoot, don’t pollute.” Yet here we are forty years later needing an entirely new set of announcements. In the PNW we are living in a recycling bubble that bursts the moment you pass the county line. For me it is about keeping abreast of changes in material and recycling technology and spreading the word. I do this through my conversations, as manager of the AIR program at Recology, and through my artwork. I do believe that the experience of art has the potential to change the way we think about culture, politics, beauty, the environment, and ourselves.

LC: You’ve been trained in the craft and material side of art making. In what ways does that training—and the work you’ve done in these areas over many years—influence what you’ve done with this project?

MP: My initial training was as a metalsmith within a master of fine arts program. From that, I learned a very skill-based craft, which naturally involves tools, materials, and hands. I learned to use those skills through the lens of art, which taught me to think about implication and form within a broader set of ideas. My work and process would be nothing without my metals training. I deeply appreciate the hand-skills I have and my ability to apply them to the work I make now. It is really at the root of my process: applying a totally foreign application as a solution to a problem is much like removing an object from its original context to become something unexpected. No matter the material I’m working with, a sense of craft is woven through, particularly in the details as they are revealed to a viewer who spends time with the work.

LC: We once viewed art as the eternal search for beauty. Beauty has been an interest of yours—or rather, what counts as beauty. Is that still something you’re thinking about, even as you bring our attention to a dire situation?

MP: Beauty and ugliness are very subjective. I have always been interested in challenging our notions of beauty as they apply to our cultural understanding and presentation of it. I find the characteristics of nonconventional beauty far more interesting and real. As I have been building this body of work, wading through piles of trash, there have been many moments when I have thought, this is so ugly! But It is supposed to be ugly, the subject is ugly and yet I have to fight the urge to make it beautiful. Rather than beauty, I sought what I felt was engaging, curious, ridiculous and confusing—most of the feelings I have around the issue. 

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Exhibition Credit

Maria Phillips: Hidden in Plain Sight is organized by Bellevue Arts Museum and curated by Lucile Chich. Exhibition sponsored in part by Macy's. Experiential Learning Sponsor: PCC Community Markets. Media sponsor: Crosscut. In-kind support from Seattle SignShop.