Tides of history, from pirates to plastic: A look at the art of Steve McPherson

Tides of history, from pirates to plastic: A look at the art of Steve McPherson

By Jennifer A. Wagner-Lawlor, PPC ambassador

Since his childhood a little north and west of London on the North Kent Coast of England, artist Steve McPherson has been a dedicated collector.

Eccles Bay is part of the North Kent coast of England, where the artist not only grew up but also where, except for some years after college, he still lives. Eccles Bay is “his bay,” in the sense that he belongs to, it, or with it: it is his physical and spiritual “home.”

The work created over the last 30 years can be connected back to a life spent around this cove-like stretch of English seacoast. As a young beach-comber McPherson was rewarded with endless wonders, everything from shells and driftwoods to fossilized amber and sponge, early human flint knifes or hammers, ocean-polished stones, sea glass, old coins, the occasional musket ball.

With its natural sea-caves carved into chalk cliffs, the bay has been visited by Vikings and pirates, and later, this entire southern coastline became Britain’s first line of defense against incoming enemy aircraft headed toward London from France (see map above). To this day, the ocean tosses up military detritus, such as shell casings, bullets, and gas masks—so many of the latter that Steve had a whole collection of them. 

Today’s invader, lurking in every nook and cranny of Eccles Bay, is plastic. The multiple collections of McPherson’s childhood have given way today to a single, vast collection of an endlessly variable cache of plastic detritus.  In the hour or so Steve and I walked the beach, we picked up not only the usual plastic bottles, straws, forks and spoons for eating fries and ice cream—but also tiddley winks, acrylic finger nails, popped balloons, plastic diapositive slide frames (McPherson has a large jar filled with these frames); plastic beads; nurdles (preproduction plastic pellets); “loom bands” for kids’ weaving sets; buttons and badges; bread packaging clips; large and small buoy fragments; fishing line; machine innards; plastic soldiers and other figurines; “bits and bobs” from everyday life.

Like many artists using found plastic, McPherson did not originally seek out plastic as a material to work with. His earlier work was interested in cartography, in books, in collections and archives, in memory and temporality, in change—and in the sea. Plastic came to him by making itself visible, to his eyes, as the latest form of historical record. Given his life-long interest in the bay itself, in the peoples who have come and gone, in the changes to the bay’s ecology and economy, and in its role in the broader history of England, creating artwork reflecting this latest phase in the life of the bay is a logical step. Then emerged the paradoxes and ironies of plastic that engage a growing number of artists, and the recognition that plastic is not just a material, but an idea.  

While McPherson is often labeled an “eco-artist,” his interest in the ecology of Eccles Bay is life-long, as it has so profoundly impacted his life and profession. This doesn’t mean the artist rejects an activist interpretation of his work—indeed, at home his family lives as plastic-free as possible. (For a take-out fish and chips dinner on the beach—no plastic packaging involved—they even brought a stainless steel water bottle for me in case I didn’t have one on hand.) But in creating plastic marine waste assemblages that “translate” into aesthetic form the scientific documentation of various environments, one sees the persistence of his earliest themes, recast in plastic. Plastic provides a critical, ecological dimension to Steve McPherson’s strong historical and archival sensibilities, as the artist also considers the present and the future of each unique locality by what has become a global threat.  

In the studio, McPherson’s puzzle-like assemblages of hundreds of pieces of marine plastic trash per work are themselves part of the historical documentation of Eccles Bay, and other sites he visits. Each one of the dozens of circular and rectangular compositions (see slide show) represents a data set describing some current aspect of a particular ecological setting. Each formal experiment has the look of an “art infographic,” according to the artist, interpreting in form and color data sets describing the localities he visits. Steve researches reports and records of such things as mean water temperatures for the UK, light dispersion through the water column, the colors of the seasons (as he sees them—Steve is color-blind!), and, yes, the size and depth of the pelagic zones of the five major oceans where plastic pollution is collecting itself.

“Wavelengths” (above) is included in the now-traveling art exhibition I co-curated at Penn State University, Plastic Entanglements: Ecology, Aesthetics, Materials. This piece was one of the first that viewers saw, and was one of the most popular, especially among school-aged children.

Maybe the kids saw instinctively what Steve sees so clearly in each piece of plastic he picks up: a mystery. What is it? Where did this object, often just a fragment, come from? Where is it going? For how long? How many hands has it passed through? Why is it landing here, in Eccles Bay, and what is it “doing” here? The answers are often not forthcoming.

But that’s okay, says McPherson, “I like the mystery. Who wants to know everything, or solve the mystery? Then there’s nothing more to think about.” His ongoing investigations of plastic continue to reach backward and forward in time, to delve further into the nature of this latest, unnatural, visitor to the shores of Eccles Bay.

Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor is a PPC Ambassador and Professor of Women’s Studies and English at Penn State University.

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