The artist who is turning plastic waste into art

Holly V Maslen, an artist based on the Isle of Wight, has spent countless days trailing her local beaches looking for plastic waste. It may sound like an unusual habit but every hour has been worth it, because with this washed up waste, Holly creates unique pieces of art to inspire and emphasise the human impact on this precious world.

EP spoke to the artist, famed for how she works with positive and negative spaces within the boundaries of black and white, on why she was inspired enough to take this new direction with her work. 

“It all started a few years ago in Morocco. When I visited the beaches on the beautiful coastline the view was obscured from its true beauty by piles of waste.” Holly explains from her studio across the road from the beach. From that holiday onwards, the idea of doing something important has been sub-consciously bubbling away and as she explains, it all sort of began quite randomly.

“I just started picking up a few bits of plastic I spotted whilst walking along the beaches. I kept finding more than I thought and instead of placing these in the recycling bin I decided to get creative. It’s difficult to explain the creative process but once I had the materials in front of me that strange creative process started. I placed a few pieces on a piece of driftwood to hang on the wall, then I started thinking about creating a much larger picture. That was how the idea for the Isle Of Wight map was born”

Holly began creating artwork with washed up pieces of plastic she picked up on her journeys – a habit she hasn’t been able to stop since. “I simply thought to myself, if I’m going to gather all of this plastic waste, then I’m going to have to do something visually appealing, so people will look at it and explore the story afterwards and discover what it’s made from. I wanted to make sure it didn’t look like rubbish, which makes the reality of how the images are made all the more shocking. I hope, in some small way, I can help communicate to others the issue and emphasise the issue of waste in our oceans.”

It wasn’t just the trip to Morocco that brought the issue home for Holly. She has become an avid watcher and follower of the stories related to marine debris, and references a study which recently found up to 90% of seabirds have plastic in their stomachs. A report also came out this summer which found mussels containing an alarming amount of plastic. According to the study by the University of Hull and Brunel University London, 70 particles of microplastic were found in every 100 grams of mussels.

With 89% of ocean trash coming from single-use plastic no sea is immune, and Holly is confident that her work can have the desired impact to create a greater understanding of the urgency of the situation. “The plastic is quite well hidden on our beaches compared to the piles I’ve seen abroad. In my work I’m highlighting the problem and transferring it, in some small way, to the UK.”

It’s an interesting direction for Holly to take. An artist whose inspiration comes from Scandinavian and Japanese art aesthetics where she tries to communicate the flow of energy in the world around us by using the universal symbols of circles, squares and triangles. Although, in another way, perhaps it isn’t that much of a surprising new direction for Holly as her drawings are often observations taken directly from nature combined with scenes from her imagination, resulting in dreamy landscapes with echoes of the real world.

Holly explains that only last weekend she spent the whole of Sunday and Monday on four different beaches. She often explores the same bits of beach to monitor how much comes in with the tide on a daily basis. Sometimes she finds heaps, and at other times hardly any. “It can depend on wind direction, currents, phases of the moon and tide. I usually find hard plastics – loads of bottle tops, spoons, forks, knives, straws – but also many pieces which are just fragments so its hard to know what they were originally. Whilst they have no story in that state, my work is one way of telling an important message.” It’s warming to hear that Holly hardly ever finds general public waste from beachgoers, although she highlights that in her village everyone knows everyone, so it would be very hard to get away with it.

It’s a special project to work on because the art isn’t just focused on looking good (but it does.) It's also a strong form of doing social good for people and for the planet. Holly explains this in detail, “I’ve run a gallery for a number of years and find immense joy in providing art that can hang over someone’s fireplace but I kind of feel like I’ve done this now. I don’t want to just make decorative work anymore because it doesn’t hold a deep enough purpose. I’ve always been an artist, there has never been anything else I’ve wanted to do, however I now need to combine my work with some sort of meaning. Its risky because it needs to be purchased but at the very least I’ve cleaned up bits of beach to some degree.”

This open and frank approach is a welcomed difference to many people and businesses who don’t explore the power they have to make a difference. Holly can picture a future where her work can spark a conversation and inspire people. The hope is that the work can be displayed and exhibited in businesses who believe in the story it tells. “I’m getting my teeth stuck into it and ideally one day hope to get a camper and go on a tour to many different places – which would make this a bigger project.”

Holly also has a special idea in mind for the future of plastic waste being turned into different food art like a ‘plastic hamburger’ in a ‘what are you eating?’ series. She alludes to the time needed. “It would have to be colour led, and finding the same colour pieces can be very time consuming. There’s never any guarantee on what I’ll find and that can be tough.

As more people and businesses become involved in important issues on the environment at work and at play, projects like this tell an essential story but through beautiful artwork.