I had the pleasure of meeting Jennifer Frost while attending the Wild and Scenic Film Festival in January of 2016. She was one of the featured artists for the festival, and I was drawn to her creative re-use of discarded materials. I was excited to hear from her shortly after we launched the Terra Cultura website, and realized the ethos of her work aligned perfectly with Terra Cultura’s. A few days ago we got to sit down and chat about art, agriculture, and the ways we interact with our culture and environments.
Jessica Wohlander: Start by telling us a bit about yourself and your background. Where are you from? What were you interested in growing up?
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Jennifer Frost: I’m originally from Fairfield CA, and grew up on a cattle ranch on an island in the Suisun Marsh. Basically since I could hold a crayon, I’ve been artistic. Creating things has always made me the happiest, whether it’s crafting, or drawing or coloring, anything creative has always been what I’ve wanted to be doing. I think from a young age I’ve always been super interested in wildlife, conservation and caring about the environment. I remember when I was seven I joined the WWF, and thought “I’m gonna save the whales!”. So from the beginning nature and the environment was always something I cared about. I would say the farming thing was more of a family activity that was always a part of my life, but not really my life calling.
JW: You mentioned growing up on a farm, and that your life now is focused on art. What do you think, if any, is the connection between art and agriculture? How does your agricultural upbringing inspire your work?
JF: I do believe there’s a connection between art and agriculture. Because almost always, agriculture is connected to the outdoors, and growing up in a farming family really meant spending time outdoors, attending to farming duties, which really connected me to the earth and connected me to people that work with the land. My family really worked to make me appreciate nature and pointed things out to me in nature. That really rubbed off on me. I feel as though being artistic, I started being inspired by the natural stuff around me, like picking out the colors in sunsets, or looking at light and shadows. I don’t think if I grew up in that way, being outside all the time in nature, that I would necessarily have a connection to the natural world. That’s really inspired my art, because the beauty of it was constantly being shown to me. I was never really indoors so much, I always thought being outside was much more interesting than being inside or watching tv or whatever.
I often think about how much art is really related to agriculture. If you realize about how many times people paint cows and fields and sunflowers, it brings to mind how much art is inspired by agriculture, but people really love paintings of agricultural scenes, cowboy scenes, things like that.
JW: Why do you think that is a source of imagery that people are so drawn to in terms of the desire of capturing it, but also displaying it in their homes?
JF: I think it’s this connection to a simpler time, where things aren’t so fast paced, or maybe it’s a connection to a more natural kind of living where you are collecting your eggs, and really just trying to get back to earth.
JW: It’s interesting how people these days might not know how to keep a houseplant alive, but they love to display art inspired by these agricultural scenes in their homes. It’s almost like they’re yearning for this connection to nature they might not have.
JF: Yeah, I mean a lot of people live in a place where you don’t really see nature or agriculture or anything like that every day.
JW: Tell us a bit about your process. You seem to use some unconventional materials.
This is how it all started.. I had the idea to clean up the river, and use the plastics I collected as an art medium, to show some love to the wildlife, and make a statement about marine pollution. This "experiment" has given my art a real voice allowing me to communicate what is in my heart. #artistatwork #naturelover#wildlife#artistatwork#plasticsurgeon#CADelta #ocean#river#trendingcalifornia#earth#water
JF: The process, long story short, involves collecting marine debris, plastics, mainly plastic bottles. My main source for collecting these things is in the Suisun Marsh, where I grew up; for me it’s kind of like my homeland– I feel a personal attachment and love for it. Since time has gone on, I’ve started picking up plastic wherever I go. So if I go to the ocean, I’ll pick up plastic I see on the beach, if I’m in the delta, I’ll pick up plastic there whether I need it or not. I collect it, and then bring it home, wash it, cut it up into whatever shapes I’m going to use, paint it, and then assemble it into whatever art piece I visualize. I’ve continually been experimenting with how I can use the whole bottle over time. Sometimes just for fun, I’ll play around and try and make studio decorations. Other ideas I’m specifically intending for art, but it’s all just an experiment, I’m just testing to see what I can make from it. I think collecting is the most fun part for me because I get to use my imagination on the things I find like “oh what could this be?”. It has also really educated me on marine debris and what it can mean and what it consists of. The collecting is a mix of weird beach combing, imagination, and investigating what’s out there.
JW: That does sound fun, it sounds like something we don’t usually look at– the waste that we as a society are making. It’s interesting you know those waterways so well and know what ends up there and what it looks like by the time it gets there. It’s an interesting perspective.
JF: There’s a saying about how you can tell what’s happening in the economy based on what’s in the landfill. If the economy is booming and everything is great, then the landfill will be full of building materials because everyone’s remodeling. That idea relates to the marine pollution as well. I can see how people are celebrating, or what holiday recently happened, because there will be Easter balloons, or whatever relating to different holidays. I think that carries over into all our wastes. In the area, it’s all river, so people are fishing and hunting ducks, which is another huge part of this; there’s a lot of sporting waste out there too. The stuff that is out there is incredible, I didn’t realize how much variety there is in marine pollution, but literally everything you can think of is washed up out there: glass, plastic, everything. I’ve found Christmas lights, just a massive amount of weird stuff, and a little bit of everything.
JW: How long have you been collecting plastics out there?
JF: I’ve been doing the collecting for over three years now, but being from there is kind of how it started, because I was thinking “Oh I want to start cleaning up our property”, and it built from there, because I didn’t realize how much garbage is out there, and the majority is plastic, I mean everything we use is plastic.
JW: There appears to be a dual purpose or benefit to your work in that while you’re collecting waste and transforming them into beautiful works of art, you’re also beautifying the waterways for the public good. Which of these comes first for you, the interest in environmental stewardship, or the visual art? Or is it both?
JF: I wanted to clean it up initially for the wildlife, not necessarily for the people. I’m not out on a mission to save humanity, I just don’t think it’s okay for us to be leaving the waterways like that for the wildlife. I feel like this process is transforming that situation, and wanting to heal the land. The pollution I see in our natural spaces is sad, and there’s a lot of emotion there. I just want to do what I know how to do to make it better. For me that’s getting my hands dirty and getting out there. If I want it done I have to do it myself. Initially, when I first started, I was kind of like “ah everybody needs to come out here and help clean up” but now I feel like it’s my responsibility, it made me see that if we have a pollution problem, part of it is because we’re looking to other people to solve it and not just bending down to pick it up ourselves. It’s really easy to say “the state or this agency should clean it up, or those environmental people should clean it up” while the whole time you’re saying that you could just be cleaning it up.
JW: What inspired you? How did you come to start taking the trash you’re collecting and turning them into beautiful art pieces? When did the idea for that transformation first come to you?
JF: I started mostly painting, and I got to the point where I felt like I needed more than that, so I started sculpting paper and origami and stuff like that. When I was cleaning waste up at the riverbank, I just started thinking, well maybe I can use this stuff the same way I’m using paper. Somehow sculpt it the same way paper can be sculpted. From there I started playing around and seeing what could be done with it. Because it has all been an experiment. For a while it wasn’t really that good. People were like “shouldn’t you just go back to painting?” and I said “no this is great!” But now that it’s getting better– it’s funny because I’m still just learning as I go, and trying to see what I can make out of it. But it was mostly just an experiment to see if the waste can be shaped like a paper sculpture.
I just want people to question what garbage is or what they consider garbage. If you just use something for 5 minutes and then throw it away, then that’s a wasted material in perfect condition. There’s nothing wrong with it. You’re just labelling it as garbage, and saying it’s useless now, I can’t use it anymore. But if recycled plastic can be used for so many things in the world then why can’t it be used for art?
JW: Your art seems to be informed, through the collection and repurposing of plastics and waste that you find while clearing California’s waterways, by the environment around you, for better or worse. You could be using these materials to create anything, but your subjects are more often than not nature-based. How do you see the relationship between your art and environmental issues?
JF: Nature has been an inspiration always, but I do like that plastic itself is so fake, and nature is so real. I like working with that contrast, where if you’re making a flower out of plastic, it’s a weird warped idea of what it means to be natural, but I do want to attempt to make something really beautiful. I didn’t really intend to educate people about marine pollution. I don’t want to be preaching, or be a messenger, but I have learned since I started that a lot of people don’t understand that marine pollution is way larger than the ocean problem. Most people I talk to say “Oh, you know about the ocean garbage patches right?” But they don’t understand that it’s in the rivers too, and the garbage is really just coming from our backyard into the river and then into the ocean.
I do think what’s significant about my art is that we’re living in an era where plastic pollution is a huge topic, but it’s something nobody knows how to fix right now. It’s all over every waterway or even when you go to any open space, it’s an ongoing growing problem. This whole process has made me recognize that. I just want people to question what garbage is or what they consider garbage. If you just use something for 5 minutes and then throw it away, then that’s a wasted material in perfect condition. There’s nothing wrong with it. You’re just labelling it as garbage, and saying it’s useless now, I can’t use it anymore. But if recycled plastic can be used for so many things in the world then why can’t it be used for art? I guess it’s made me see that plastics and a lot of one-use items aren’t really garbage, we’re just throwing away perfectly good material that we’ve literally used for sometimes less than 5 minutes.
JW: It makes you think, what is it about or society that enables us to call this perfectly useful stuff “trash”? Why do we put that label on it?
JF: It’s made me think about all the garbage I make, and now before I throw things away I look at it and think “Oh wait can I use this somehow?” Even if it’s not art-related, it’s interesting to think of other ways to use my own garbage. It’s crazy the amount of energy, money and time it takes to make one plastic bottle, and then how much use someone really gets out of it before they just throw it away, it’s kind of insane to think about what goes into it, and then what we get out of it.
In the ocean, you hear about all the plastics breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces, and it’s the same in the river. Once it’s in the sun and weather long enough, it gets brittle and breaks into smaller pieces. I don’t know how you would even ever collect all those small pieces. You would need a giant plastic vacuum. You can clean the beach of what you see, but what you don’t see is also a problem, because all the little tiny pieces are still there, and they’re not going anywhere, they’re just getting smaller and smaller. That’s the real problem with marine pollution.
JW: You’re so right. So, where can people see your work? Either online or in-person?
JF: You can find me on Instagram, my website, or Facebook. I have some shows coming up in the San Francisco Bay Area I will be posting on my social media as they approach.
JW: Well, keep us updated, we’d love to come visit your space when it’s ready! Thanks so much, Jennifer.