Art Meets Activism
Michelle Lougee and Resa Blatman create works that bring the environmental crisis to the fore
When Michelle Lougee picks up a plastic shopping bag, a soda bottle cap, or one of those tiny plastic and foil contact lens packages, she’s not seeing trash, but dinoflagellates, diatoms, and other microscopic underwater life. The Cambridge, Mass., artist uses upcycled plastic to create the tiny plants and creatures—invisible to the naked eye—that are being choked out by postconsumer microplastics in our oceans.
Lougee makes some of these sea organisms by cutting plastic shopping bags into loops and crocheting them together around a wire support. In the summer of 2022, she debuted a wall tapestry—made of plastic collected from local cleanups—at Magazine Beach in Cambridge. Every one of her works takes hundreds of pieces of litter out of circulation that might have joined the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a giant concentration of trash floating in the North Pacific Ocean that horrified her when she learned about it 15 years ago. Her works elicit, on first glance, whimsy and vibrancy, followed by sadness as the reality sets in that humanity appears hopelessly addicted to plastics that will never biodegrade.
“I want people to think, ‘Wow, it’s magical!’ and then, ‘It’s horrible!’” says Lougee (’89,’94). “I want to walk that balance between beauty and disgust.”
Lougee uses upcycled plastic to make plarn (plastic yarn), which she knits into sculptures of dinoflagellates, diatoms, and other microscopic underwater life—blown up by a factor of many millions. Photos by Dean Powell (top, below right) and Julia Feather (below left)
Using art to inspire a societal change is nothing new, and neither is art that makes a point about caring for the environment. But as news about Earth’s ecological future gets progressively bleaker, alums Lougee and Resa Blatman have escalated the urgency in their art and become activists for a course reversal. Lougee calls on neighbors to organize cleanups and collect plastics to use in her pieces.
Somerville, Mass.–based Blatman (’06) says she was “appalled and saddened” in 2010 while watching a documentary about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. She began making paintings and installations about climate change and started speaking about it more resolutely at her exhibitions. Blatman says she’s observed an explosion of eco-artists like her and Lougee, whose work is reaching broader audiences, including those who may not accept human-caused climate change.
“When I first started doing this work, there were not that many environmental artists,” Blatman says. “There was a group of us, and the majority were women. We were all being put in the same shows. Now, though, there are so many artists working with this theme, here and around the world.”
Painted scenes from nature were already a part of Blatman’s repertoire when she sat down in 2010 with her husband to watch Gasland, the documentary showing the impacts on communities where energy companies were drilling for natural gas through fracking. With growing alarm, she watched as water and air became so badly contaminated by methane and other chemicals that residents developed a variety of chronic illnesses and, famously, found they could even light their water on fire.
Blatman was angry. She needed to learn more about how humans were hurting the environment, and knew that her artwork had to reflect what she was learning. Prior to her environmental awakening, one of her pieces might have depicted a natural ecosystem in careful balance. In her more recent work, ominous clouds hover over a colorful bird, a clump of green grass, or fragile wildflowers, signifying their vulnerability in the face of mounting threats. She began to exhibit with artists whose work made statements about species extinction, sea level rise, and other ecological crises.
Blatman’s process starts by combing through pictures and articles on the web. She recalls coming across an image of algae growing in bodies of water where people were swimming. She was struck by both the awful reality and the shade of green.“It was so beautiful I couldn’t resist it,” she says. “So, I started painting about that. Oftentimes, I’ll read about a topic, but because I’m a visual person, the visuals capture me. And then I think, people need to know about this.”
Left: Fishing Line Drawing (2017) Fishing line found on the shores of the Arctic Circle; 18 x 10 in. Right: Universal Sea (2019) Installation: oil and acrylic on layered, hand- and laser-cut Mylar and Lexan; wall painting; glass crystals; glitter; wire pins; nails; 96 x 192 in.
Sometimes, Blatman’s inspiration comes from seeing the problem in person. In 2015, she participated in a residency with the Arctic Circle, a nonprofit that leads arctic expeditions for artists and scientists to encourage environmental advocacy. She lived and worked onboard a tall ship with other artists and researchers while sailing among Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, just 10 degrees south of the North Pole. A few years later, she and her husband visited Greenland. “When you look out at Disko Bay, icebergs the size of buildings drift by very slowly. You can’t help but be in awe of their size and magnificence,” she says. “The icebergs also attract humpback whales to feed on the krill that live there, and you get to witness an impressive dance of enormous rolling, diving, breath-spraying creatures up close. How can we not want to protect our environment when we see something as remarkable as the seascape of the Arctic, or any other natural wonder?” Blatman has since painted the melting glaciers she saw on her Arctic residency and created macramé “drawings” from a plastic fishing net that she picked up on the frozen beaches. “We took outings to the little islands and picked up trash—toothbrushes, those little dental floss things, combs, bottle tops—all kinds of pieces of plastic that came from the Atlantic Ocean and washed up in this place, where nobody lives.”
I’ve had people tell me that my work is breathtaking and beautiful, and that they feel joy when viewing it, but some have said that it also makes them sad.
Lougee also remembers the moment her art took on new meaning. She had been creating mixed media art from repurposed devices and electrical cords to depict genetically altered nature and agricultural scenes. Then she learned about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a massive vortex of plastic waste and debris swirling around a nearly 8 million square mile area. The majority of the patch is made up of plastic that has floated out from the mainland or cast off from boats and ships, never biodegrading but rather breaking down into microplastics that can be deadly to sea life. Surface trash and microplastics block sunlight, which plankton and algae use, along with carbon, to create their own nutrients and form a foundation of the marine food web. “I had that sinking feeling in my stomach, like you do for a personal crisis,” Lougee says.
She began collecting plastic bags and crocheting them into recognizable ocean creatures, like octopi and jellyfish and coral. Soon she noticed that the structure of the microscopic organisms mimicked her crochet work, and they became her subjects as well.
Left: Bleachy Reef (2017) Colored pencil and pen on board, mounted on wood panels; 24 x 60 in. Right: Blatman experimented with painting on Mylar with seaweed during her 2015 Arctic Circle residency.
Lougee enlists her friends and neighbors to source materials to make “plarn” (plastic yarn) for her fiber art pieces. Her Somerville studio (which she and Blatman used to share) has become a de facto recycling center, where she collects and sorts grocery sacks, newspaper sleeves, and other plastics that she transforms into the tiniest sea creatures—blown up by a factor of many millions, of course.
As part of a 2020 artist residency in Arlington, Mass., Lougee turned bag contributions from the community into an installation of 37 sculptures, titled Persistence, along the Minuteman Bikeway. And in the summer of 2022, she and Cecily Miller, public art curator for Arts Arlington, teamed up to collect plastics for the large-scale tapestry that hangs in Mass Audubon’s nature center at Magazine Beach in Cambridge. Lougee brought together local children, teens, artists, and other volunteers to piece it together, and puts a fine point on what she wants the tapestry to say: end the use of single-use plastics.
“I have never thought of myself as a community leader,” she says, “but I have a responsibility to have offerings of what people can do.”
Mixed into both artists’ commitments to using their work to highlight human impact on the environment is a sadness about the slow progress of combatting ecological crises. Despite the passion with which she fights humanity’s plastic problem, Lougee sees no end to the primary material in her artwork because corporations are unwilling to improve their packaging. “It’s not close to being solved,” she says. “The newspaper sleeves and some plastic bags are being phased out, but I’ve done public art projects with plastic bottle caps, and I don’t see those going away anytime soon.”
Blatman admits to becoming jaded witnessing humanity’s refusal to give up activities that are contributing to ecological collapse—like frequent airplane travel and food and water waste. “I’ve had people tell me that my work is breathtaking and beautiful, and that they feel joy when viewing it, but some have said that it also makes them sad,” she says. “There are changes being made, but I feel apprehensive that they’re happening fast enough to save us from overheating, fires, floods, droughts, and a planet that may eventually become too wounded for our health and sustainability.”