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.

Join our global Coalition.  

by Allie McAllister (Penn State University, Class of 2020, Environmental Studies major), with Professor Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor, PPC Ambassador

When Penn State English professor and poet Julia Kasdorf challenged her undergraduate students to compose a poem based on a work of plastic art from the Plastic Entanglements exhibition at the university’s Palmer Museum of Art, she did it with a specific intention, both pedagogical and provocative. According to Kasdorf, “the dialogue between the visual and verbal arts is as old as Ancient Greece,” and she wanted her students “to see how looking hard at a work of art can enable them to make discoveries and write some of their own true poems.”

Kasdorf herself is a long-time environmentalist, particularly passionate about fracking, and of course the production of plastic is part of that story as well. The Plastic Entanglements was a framework for thinking about a different aspect of today’s petro-culture, and encountering the many dimensions of the crisis of plastic pollution as both an ecological crisis and as an ethical challenge.  

These four poems here are haunting literary transformations of art observation into personal meditation, emerging from a deep inner reflection of what it means to be human in the time of  “the Plasticene” period of our history (or more broadly, “the Anthropocene”). Each student presents a unique response to a chosen work, and thinks through the relationship between image and word. The poem complements the art work, and vice versa, while also drawing the reader/spectator through their own emotional and imaginative thought process. Writing and reading a poem about a work of art can push one past the passive “spectator” role, and beyond the apparent “face value” of the art work. The poet and reader, as spectators alike, experience how words conjured in the observing of the work can create imagery of their own, giving a shape to feelings, hopes, and fears about a damaged world.     

Take a look at these moving poems by Penn State undergraduates Will Campbell, Talley Kaser, Brandon Neal, and Megan Deam, whose reflections call into question the value of life and ecological balance, compared with imbalanced economics of materialism, and rampant consumerism. Kasdorf’s writing assignment is grounded in the belief that “the process of looking and thinking that produced these poems required a deep level of engagement with the work of art,” and she, like us, “hopes that readers of these poems will share that experience.”  

To a Dead Albatross, Will Carpenter

 (After Body Bag for Birds (Polyethylene Terephthalate / PET), 2013, by Marina Zurkow)

Funny isn’t it?

Isn’t it? Do you know

why we bother

to bag you up?

You will sustain us

like leftovers, plastic wrapped

in the refrigerator, recycled.

In just tens of millions

of years, you will be

oil, be useful.

All we ask

is that you decay

until the bag is no longer full

and wait for temperature

and pressure to work

their miracles.

The plastic inside you


The plastic enveloping you

remains — holds you close

as you decompose –and will do so

for over a thousand years,

ensuring you are not eaten,

displaced — wasted.

You may complain,

as you pool into black gold,

that your prospects

seem lackluster.

It’s true, we proffer only one solution


but let us assure you,

your possibilities are limitless:

you could fuel an oil tanker,

taxidermy a polar bear,

bind together a family of canned

sodas, soar in a hot air

Balloon, balloon into a five gallon water cooler spout into a mold for eyeglasses,

so don’t label us nearsighted.

Who knows?

Maybe you’ll even grow into

Another body bag for birds.

Albatross Ekphrasis, after Chris Jordan

By Talley Kaser

how unlike me

to look at a bird

and think of myself

and not the bird.

but still I wonder

which bright bits

stab jagged

through my even

Most silversoft lining. which

is the biggest bolus

drawing the eye


I am



my little brother

is a doctor. my little

brother cut open a person.

cadaver corpse — for a

full year he teased it

into pieces. he says

they start you with

the back. the face

comes last. the face

is difficult. one morning

he gently lifted

a bright now tie from

the neck of his

corpse. he walked the scrap

of plastic to the trash

then turned to his lab mates.

we’re not doing that

again. he says

they covered her

hands to hide the color

of her nails, which was too like

someone’s mother’s.


the photographer’s hands

(bare) teased from the

dark bile of the bird that stuff

which cut and

lodged and

crowded but never

fed and therefore

killed. the photographer scrubbed

each bright piece clean

and lay it back against

the opened body

riddle: my father

is like unto or not

the photographer


much of my mother

has been removed

but lucky she

remitted. I made

the mistake of googling

tumor. I am no doctor but

they don’t appear to come

in a wide variety

of colors. my mother

is farm-raised and

well bred. also uneasy.

and diseased. my mother

fed on food fresh

from the garden

which they sprayed

same as the cotton.


the birds swallowed

the bright bits on the sand, as they

have always done.

as they have always done,

they offered from the depths

of their bodies those same bits

and fed their children, tell me

what I’ve swallowed. tell me

how it’s killing me. given the chance

I would prefer to slough in the dirt

without particular color — no pink

clinging to my nails, no strange red

bulge collecting in my thigh, no evidence

of which stray memory choked

my growth or stunted flight,

which sadness I was fed

and ate. I would prefer

earth swarm what’s left:

an opened harmlessness,

soft, gnawable flesh

and clean, bright bits of bone.

Walden, by Brandon Neal  

In the woods

            Lies a pond deep and dark

It overtakes you

            Splashing through your eyes

Drizzling through the filtered

            Cracks in your skin

It calls to you.

Each step you take

            Flows into the next

You Sweep along

            All the mud choked reeds

And plastic

            And cigarette butts

You crash.

Into this world

Where children sleep in their beds

With your icy soft words

You fill their lungs

With the entangled mess

Of everything that you


They choke. 

Origin of Species, by Megan Deam

(After Institute for Marine Invertebrates, Mark Dion)

I see the irony:

Crustaceans crowned at the bottom of the ocean,

tucked under plastic eyes, rubber toys


with deathless colors

History — do we want to go down like this?

Will we be remembered as murderers?

Poachers of natural landscapes?

Our cabinets of curiosities are landfills

what we’ve collected in our

anthropomorphic thirst.

And we will continue to temporarily quench

our needs

while permanently infiltrating

the sands




            Breathing in our scrap

We will discard our excess,

extra expensive

exotic and erotic

aphrodisiacs turned abstract


man-saved, manmade, once again

coral contamination

fluorescent fossils 

Preserved in their own synthetic

man makes us think there are no consequences.

We present our trash on shelves and make it a trophy.

Have we won?

We’ve only taken

the prize

so durable,


Plastic Entanglements: Ecology, Aesthetics, Materials features sixty works of art from thirty international artists who are exploring both the nature of plastic as a material, the role of plastic in our world and its implications, and finally how art can be used as a form of science communication.  Proposed by PPC ambassador and Penn State professor Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor, and co-curated along with the Palmer Museum of Art’s curator, Joyce Robinson, and New School assistant professor Heather Davis, the exhibition has finished its four-month run at Penn State, as well as a second run at the University of Oregon. It is currently showing at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. through July 2019. It travels finally to the University of Wisconsin, opening in fall 2019. For questions about the exhibition, contact Jennifer Wagner-Lawlor, jaw55@psu.edu.