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The Artist Making Tapestries Out of Aquatic Trash

Jo Atherton’s colorful works turn our plastic crisis into a meditation on memory and time.

Jo Atherton’s tapestries can’t be ignored. They’re filled with texture, movement, and color. When placed on the blank walls of galleries, they’re like fishing lures for the eye: visitors will spot them from across the room and hone on in.

“Often, people are drawn to them,” says Atherton. “They don’t quite know what they’re looking at … It’s only when they get up close that they have that shock moment of, ‘Oh my God, it’s rubbish!’”

This is not a judgement. Atherton, a freelance artist based in Bedfordshire, England, literally makes art from garbage. Some of it is old garbage—pieces of pottery and glass from ancient Rome, lent gravitas by the passage of time. Some of it is slightly more recent, like the nests of rope, fishing net, and colorful plastic doo-dads that make up those sneaky tapestries, which she calls “Flotsam Weaving.” She finds all of her materials herself, in the depths of the Thames and along the low-tide lines on Cornwall’s beaches.

One of Jo Atherton's flotsam tapestries.
One of Jo Atherton’s flotsam tapestries. Courtesy Jo Atherton

Atherton prefers to beachcomb in Cornwall, on the U.K.’s southwest coast. “A lot of material washes up in the winter because of the Gulf Stream,” she says, and she and other seekers pick up stuff from all corners of the Atlantic: the West Indies; the Eastern seaboard; Nova Scotia. Atherton describes the tideline as “a story,” and scavenging along it as “an act of reading.”

A detail from a flotsam weaving, featuring a bubble wand and a rooster-shaped bike reflector that once came free in boxes of Kellogg's Cereal.
A detail from a flotsam weaving, featuring a bubble wand and a rooster-shaped bike reflector that once came free in boxes of Kellogg’s Cereal. Courtesy Jo Atherton

Often, she must imagine the characters that populate the resulting tales: What kid played with this plastic soldier? Who disobeyed their parents and released this now-popped balloon? But sometimes, the real ones make themselves known—as when she found a fisherman’s tag that had floated to Cornwall after detaching from a lobster buoy in Maine. “I thought, ‘I’ll type his name into Facebook and see if I can find him,’” she says. “And sure enough, I could.” Later, they talked on the phone, and realized they share a birth year, 1979.

Experiences like this inspired her Flotsam Weaving series, which she says is about “the threads of stories … [and] the similarity between text and textile.” More recently, she has been exploring other media, including printing and cyanotype. For these works, she arranges tiny bits of plastic in repeating, often circular patterns. Silhouetted and abstracted by ink or photochemicals, they look like plankton viewed through a microscope. “Prehistoric plankton settled onto the ocean floor and slowly turned into oil,” she says. “That’s now what we’re making our plastic from … the prints are a way of getting people thinking about these deep-time connections.”



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