By Jenna Chia
The recent collapse of the REDcycle program — halting the recycling of soft plastics — has once again drawn attention to the excessive consumption of natural and man-made materials, and the extreme waste that western societies generate. With a lack of sustainable alternatives, we are faced with questions of how to be more mindful in what we consume, and the changes required to reduce our environmental footprint.
These questions inspired Sarah Muir-Smith, the artist behind Snakebird Designs, when developing her first solo exhibition ‘In Plain Sight’ at the Louis Joel Arts Community Centre in Altona last month. The exhibition comprised ceramics, textile and ink works that incorporate found objects and everyday household items. This includes locally-sourced rock, clay, construction site materials, kitty litter, and common pharmaceutical products such as antacids, toothpaste and haemorrhoid suppositories.
While ceramics is often seen as a nature-based, eco-friendly medium, Sarah cautions that this can lead to an element of ‘green-washing’. “While we like to feel wholesome and earthy about it, the commercial materials most of use in ceramics are mined. It’s important to recognise that. Often, we don’t even know where our materials come from”.
These reflections motivated Sarah to look to her urban surroundings for materials that were more sustainable. “I don’t live in the bush by a river so I can’t harvest wild clay and even if I could, I would be disrupting the natural environment.” Instead, she looked closer to home. “When I looked around I saw construction sites, industrial parks, shops, and what was in my own front yard.”
Her work also challenges the idea of waste as an end-product and highlights the value and beauty within seemingly useless materials. “It’s important to work out what we have excess of in our own environment and think more about the uses for them. I had so many things in my cupboard that I was able to experiment with and use. Re-thinking their use makes the most mundane things exciting!”
Using unconventional materials has led to Sarah having a more experimental approach to her art, something which her teacher Shane Kent from the School of Clay and Art encouraged. Through testing she saw how alternative substances resulted in different textures, colours and finishes in her ceramics. “It takes a long time and it’s a collaboration between you and the materials. I think that’s why it’s fun! Being prescriptive never produces my best work.”
The process driven and place-based approach to her art is also inspired by traditional Japanese ceramics practices. “The traditional Japanese approach to ceramics is very much based on working with the materials you have and not trying to force a certain style on it: instead they worked from the materials up. So, the ceramics all have these very different beautiful qualities depending on where you are in Japan. That idea is really exciting because it’s painting the picture of a place.”
Connection to place and living in harmony with the natural environment is something that First Nations communities have done over many thousands of years, however colonisation has devalued these long-held practices. “I think it’s important to move to a more Indigenous way of thinking about nature,” explains Sarah. “We need to go back and admit we got it wrong. Especially in Australia, it’s ridiculous how little we listen to this existing knowledge. Many plants that we consider weeds can be very nutritious or produce incredible colours. Capitalism has disconnected us from that.”
Collective community action is critical as we seek to slow catastrophic environmental damage and address the problematic nature of excessive consumption and profit driven economies. Sarah sees the arts community as playing an important role in this, “it’s a shared responsibility to get curious and question the way we do things.” This curiosity has led to an evocative and thought-provoking body of work which draws attention to the beauty found in the everyday items around us. “That’s the idea behind the name of my exhibition — we don’t need to go searching, it’s ‘in plain sight’. We just need to get rid of the ego and look at what is around us. Most things in the natural environment can have this complete other life if you know how to coax it out.”
See more of Sarah’s work at https://www.snakebirddesigns.com/