Alison Smith is an emerging artist, maker and educator based in Leeds, who transforms single-use plastics through traditional textile processes, into inspiring installations reflecting ecological themes.
Alison’s most recent piece, Climate Canopy, made in partnership with the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, interprets 170 years of climate data as an immersive light sculpture. The piece was displayed at Light Night Leeds 2021, and made its way up to Glasgow to be displayed in the Blue Zone at COP26, hanging above delegates heads as they developed pledges to decide our future.
We sat down with Alison to talk about how her creative work takes scientific research, and transforms those findings into accessible and engaging artwork that inspires audience to take climate action in their lives.
Climate Canopy at Light Night Leeds 2021, created in partnership with the National Centre for Atmospheric Science
Hi Alison! Please can you tell us about your creative practice, where does the inspiration for your work come from?
My practice has developed over the last 10 years, initially from an interest in making things, and materials and processes. I think my interest in sustainability was born from a very deeply embedded frugal nature, growing up as a farmer’s daughter – we didn’t throw that much away!
This instilled that sense of seeing value in what otherwise would be thrown away, and whatever can possibly be reused, should be. In terms of the textile inspiration, my mum and grandma are amazing crafters, and so I grew up watching them turn nothing, such as a ball of wool, into something amazing.
Do you think your upbringing in the countryside also influenced the natural themes of your work?
Definitely! Almost all of my work has some sort of organic form at the heart of it or at least an ecological narrative. I’m really interested in the relationship between synthetic and the natural, as we as a society continue to use single use plastics, and they continue to get lost and degraded within our ecosystems.
I’m fascinated by the lifecycles of things too, and plastic has a really weird lifecycle, and I’m interested in that contrast with natural lifecycles.
The Indestructible Reef at Light Night Leeds 2016
Talking of lifecycles, what is the lifecycle of your creations? They’re giving new life to plastic, but what happens to them when they reach the end of their lifecycle?
Well so far, I’ve managed not to throw any of them away! Therefore, storage is a little tricky. I keep the Indestructible Reef, a large coral reef sculpture in my spare bedroom, and I have loads of Frost Blossoms stuffed in my basement!
As my work is made from plastic, they are quite durable, and so they don’t get damaged that easily. The only real waste from my work then is the offcuts from the plastic, which I do keep at the moment, and eventually, I’d like to challenge myself to create a piece of work from all of those offcuts!
“Scientists, naturally, are incredibly involved within their work, and it is therefore often difficult for them to step back and tell that story. Our strength as artists is communicating those stories to a wider audience in an engaging and accessible format”
You often collaborate with scientists to create you work, how has this evolved?
The main route into that was through the Leeds Creative Labs programme, which involves pairing up creatives with academic researchers.
Dr. Chris Hassall collaborated with me on The Nectary, which is the piece made up of six huge flowers that you can stand underneath. To create Climate Canopy, I collaborated with the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, and then I’ve collaborated with Professor Nicola Stonehouse from the University of Leeds who is a virology professor, who commissioned me to make a poliovirus sculpture for her.
One thing we discuss at SAIL is the communication of climate change: its something that in the arts we’re inherently built to do – communicate with people on difficult issues. Is this something you consider within your work?
Yes, definitely. Scientists, naturally, are incredibly involved within their work, and it is therefore often difficult for them to step back and tell that story. Our strength as artists is communicating those stories to a wider audience in an engaging and accessible format. For me, finding about cutting-edge advances in technology and research directly from the scientists sparks new pathways of inspiration that I wouldn’t have otherwise found.
The Nectary at Light Night Leeds 2021
How else do you embed sustainability within your practice?
I think embedding sustainability in the scheduling and budgeting stages of our work is something we all need to work on. Increasingly, I’m budgeting in more sustainable options such as electric van hire, and I’m putting in my contract that I want to be provided with a sustainable energy supply for my artwork.
Is there anything you really struggle to find a sustainable alternative for, and have to make compromises for?
Sometimes the frame materials for my work can be tricky to make sustainably, but recently, I’ve begun using wicker for the frames of my sculptures instead of chicken wire of or plastic netting, which is brilliant as it’s really flexible and strong!
I think for all new purchasing decisions, it’s a case of being conscious about the end-of-life before you buy them, to ensure you’ve got that exit plan. One thing I’ve managed to overcome using is cable ties, as I discovered reusable cable ties, which are amazing!
The Nectary at Light Night Leeds 2021, photo by Lizzie Coombes
We invited you to sit on our panel of industry experts as part of our event for Leeds Arts University, discussing sustainability in the context of employability. Do you have any key messages from taking part in that event that you’d like to share with students and upcoming graduates?
In terms of careers, all organisations now are, or should be, considering sustainability in some form, and so we’re beginning to see sustainability becoming a part of everyone’s job. For young people starting out in this sector, just know that it is recognised that younger generations are very aware of sustainability and have great ideas surrounding it: your ideas will be valued.
Finally, are there any upcoming events where we can see your work?
From hosting enlightening workshops to rehoming unused resources, from equipping individuals with Carbon Literacy Training to partnering with local organisations for greener events, SAIL is taking the lead in West Yorkshire’s creative and cultural scene. But we’re not doing it alone. Our strength lies in our community, in the passionate and dedicated individuals and organisations committed to fostering a more sustainable future.
We’ve made a significant impact, but there’s still much to be done. We need you to join us on this journey. As a member of SAIL, you’ll not only gain access to our network and resources, but you’ll also play a vital role in driving the sustainability movement in our local creative and cultural industries.
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