Friday 25 August 2023

Threads of Consequence: Faith, Hope and Plastic

From left to right: George Frederic Watts, Hope 1886 | Threads of Consequence, Jane E Porter 2023

Exploring Art's Impact on Environmental Awareness

In today's world, where art and environmental concerns intersect, a single stroke of inspiration can unravel a cacophony of meaningful reflections.

Art is more than just a visual spectacle; it is a dynamic conversation between artist and observer, where ideas and emotions take shape. While aesthetics and beauty may steal the spotlight, art's ability to ignite meaningful conversations about societal and environmental challenges is an essential aspect of its impact. 

Hope: A Symbolic Masterpiece

One such timeless masterpiece that continues to spark dialogue is George Frederic Watts enigmatic painting, 'Hope.' Painted in 1886, this symbolist painting invites viewers to delve into the realms of interpretation, and its resonance has endured for over a century. It stands as a testament to art's power to not only captivate the eye but also to inspire thought, foster connection, and shed light on the complexities of the human experience.

Watts chose to let the viewer interpret his paintings, a choice that can be both rewarding and frustrating for the audience. I often adopt a similar approach in my work, leaving interpretations somewhat open. This not only creates intrigue but allows the audience to find meaning or ideas that I have yet to discover.

Interpreting 'Hope': Insights from Art Critics

In this post, I'd like to explore some interpretations of 'Hope' made by art critics. I'll also draw parallels to contemporary art's role in addressing urgent issues, as exemplified by my own artwork, 'Threads of Consequence.' These parallels highlight the enduring power of art to reflect and shape our understanding of the world.

Hope and Its Enduring Resonance

This painting is often considered a timeless and universal image of hope's endurance. It became widely popular and was reproduced in various forms, making it one of the most recognized and enduring allegorical paintings of the 19th century.

The painting depicts a female figure sitting atop a globe, blindfolded and playing a lyre that has only a single string remaining. She appears to be deep in thought and concentration despite her lack of sight. The background is dark and sombre, possibly representing a sense of uncertainty or despair.

Exploring Symbolism in 'Hope'

The painting is renowned for its powerful symbolism and art critics have offered various interpretations over the years. Below are some critiques of the painting's meaning:

  1. Symbol of Resilience: Some critics view the painting as a symbol of resilience and the human spirit's indomitable will to survive. Despite the broken strings, the woman continues to play, suggesting that hope persists even in the direst circumstances.

  2. Commentary on Victorian Society: Others see the painting as a commentary on the social conditions of the Victorian era. The blindfolded figure represents the masses, blind to their plight, with the broken lyre symbolizing the broken promises of the era. The single unbroken string represents the slim hope that things could improve.

  3. Fragility of Hope: The fragile lyre with a single string could also symbolize the delicate nature of hope itself. Watts might be conveying the idea that hope can be easily diminished or lost.

  4. Personal Struggles: Some critics suggest that the painting reflects Watts's personal struggles. The blindfolded figure and the broken lyre symbolise his own feelings of despair and his struggle to find hope. Professionally, Watts's commitment to symbolic and allegorical subjects was often at odds with the tastes of the Victorian art establishment, which favoured more literal and narrative-based works. Despite his eventual success, he often felt misunderstood by critics and the public.

Overall, 'Hope' by George Frederic Watts is a poignant representation of the power of hope in the face of adversity. Its emotive imagery and symbolic elements have made it an enduring piece of art that continues to inspire and resonate with viewers worldwide.

I've always been drawn to the painting but, never have I considered it an emblem of hope. I can't help but wonder if Watts named the piece 'Hope' to make it more appealing to his Victorian audience. If it had been titled 'Despair', it may not have received the recognition it did.

From 'Hope' to 'Threads of Consequence'

Reflecting on Watts' 'Hope' and its various interpretations, I'd now like to introduce you to my own recent artwork, 'Threads of Consequence'. Much like 'Hope', 'Threads of Consequence' is allegorical and uses symbolism to heighten the impact and strengthen the narrative. It's a stark depiction of the environmental impact of the fashion industry, with each thread representing a different aspect of this complex issue. Unlike 'Hope', it tells a grim story about what's going on under our noses and in our closets. Let's take a deeper look into its metaphors and meaning.

Crafting 'Threads of Consequence'

I kicked off the creation of 'Threads of Consequence' with a study of a striking, black model, wearing a headscarf. Visually, she reminded me of Billie Holiday, who featured in an early series of mine, titled, 'The Tortured Soul Creates Art'. This series explored creative souls who had fallen prey to the tragedy of addiction. But let's get back to the portrait. My initial goal was to achieve a realistic representation and a charcoal effect using digital painting, which I believe I accomplished. Sure, using actual charcoal might have been easier, but the digital medium allowed me to save the completed piece as a new file and experiment with it. Ah, the joys of digital painting!

Navigating Artistic Challenges and Weaving the Narrative

The second version was an exercise in hatching, a technique I've never been particularly fond of. Armed with a 'get on with it, you'll learn something' attitude, I set to work. Initially, it was quite relaxing, therapeutic even, but my enthusiasm began to wane. In an attempt to rekindle my motivation, I found myself researching the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci and Rafael, hoping their mastery would inspire me to continue. It didn't, but I did manage to pass an hour or so and clock up my procrastination time. I then decided to leave it until the next day because tomorrow is the prime day for creativity and productivity.

The following day, I approached the piece with a fresh perspective. The research that had gone into 'Solitude', the Billie Holiday painting, had fascinated me as I was focusing on a narrative as well as an aesthetic. I found myself looking again at the image of the beautiful woman, who resembled a fashion model, and pondered how to make the piece more engaging. Beauty alone wasn't inspiring enough for me, so I asked myself, what story could I tell?

Environmental Awakening: Unveiling the Message

I toyed with the idea of having a pop at the fashion industry, particularly the sweatshop angle. However, I couldn't find decent data linking luxury brands to child labour, and she didn't strike me as an 'H&M' kind of girl. I considered an anti-war message, but her image didn't fit the profile. The pull towards the fashion industry was strong, so I knew I needed to find another angle and save the child labour conversation for another piece.

That's when I began researching environmental concerns around fashion, and then it hit me - pollution! Specifically, plastic pollution. A couple of years ago, I illustrated a children's book, 'The Green Fairy and the Lost Dog', which centred around single-use plastic. The author, Daisy-Jo Bear, is a dear friend of mine, but if the book had been about a prince on a white horse, I would have politely declined the offer, no matter how much I adore her. In preparation for the book, I'd read a lot about plastic pollution, so it was great to draw on that knowledge. It's good to recycle or upcycle your art and knowledge, as well as your plastic 😉.

Crafting the Message Through Aesthetics

'Threads of Consequence' is a powerful commentary on the fashion industry and its role in plastic pollution. The portrait features a black woman, her gaze directed upwards and away from the camera, expressing a sense of indignation and disbelief. Her camouflage headscarf symbolises the ongoing conflict we face with our environmental impact and the industry that perpetuates it.

The monochromatic palette, punctuated by the red in her eyes, serves as a stark reminder of the toxicity and harm caused by plastic waste. This red, reminiscent of blood, underscores the potential harm to our health and the severity of the environmental damage we're confronting.

I opted for a street art aesthetic to infuse the piece with a raw urban edge with a socio-political message. The skull and crossbones serve as a grim warning about the repercussions of our actions on the environment. In 'Threads of Consequence', the worlds of beauty and fashion intersect with environmental activism, creating a compelling call to action against plastic pollution.

Understanding Plastic Pollution

The Growing Threat of Microplastics

Plastic pollution has rapidly become a pervasive and pressing global issue with far-reaching implications. The unchecked production and disposal of plastic products have led to an alarming accumulation of plastic waste in our environment. From oceans and waterways to landfills, and even permeating the air we breathe, the ubiquity of plastic waste poses a significant threat to ecosystems and human health.

Microplastics are minuscule fragments of plastic debris present in the environment, resulting from the disposal and degradation of consumer products and industrial waste. Among environmental concerns, microplastics, especially those originating from the fashion industry, hold a substantial place.

The Silent Threat: Microplastics in Our Bodies

UK scientists discovered microplastics in the digestive systems of fish and shellfish, raising concerns about the safety of seafood consumption. Further studies were conducted to determine whether the greater threat came from consuming mussels or breathing air in a typical home. The conclusion was that people ingest more plastics from inhaling fibres shed by clothes and carpets than from consuming shellfish.

In 2022, scientists from the Netherlands and the UK found tiny particles of plastic deep within the lungs of surgical patients and in the blood of anonymous donors. This discovery shifted the focus towards the vast amount of airborne microplastics we are exposed to daily. These particles are so small that they can penetrate the human body and embed themselves deep within our cells.

Fashion's Role in Plastic Pollution

The Fast Fashion Connection

Fast Fashion refers to inexpensive clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends. A significant portion of today's fast fashion is made from cheap, synthetic, non-biodegradable plastic materials such as polyester, nylon, or acrylic. These materials shed microscopic fibres that become airborne and, when washed, release microplastics into our water supply, which eventually flow into our rivers and oceans.

The Accumulation of Waste: Fast Fashion's Impact

Research estimates suggest that over 14 million tonnes of microplastics have accumulated on the world’s ocean floor according to research estimates and the amounts are increasing every year. Fast fashion accounts for particularly high levels of such releases - over a third (35%) of all microplastics released into the world's oceans are from synthetic textiles. It is estimated that by 2050 we will have more plastic than fish in the ocean.

This alarming contribution perpetuates the microplastics crisis and underlines the crucial intersection between fast fashion and plastic pollution.

Confronting Uncertainty: Health Implications

The UK lung study identified particles made of plastics that are known to be toxic to humans, causing lung irritation, dizziness, headaches, asthma and cancer.

Albert A. Rizzo, recognized for his national contributions to the prevention and control of lung disease and serving as the Chief Medical Officer for the American Lung Association, states 'The science is too unclear to draw conclusions….. The most relevant analogy may be the decades-long effort to convince the government that smoking causes cancer. By the time we got enough evidence to lead to policy change, the cat was out of the bag. I can see plastics being the same thing. Will we find out in 40 years that microplastics in the lungs lead to premature ageing of the lungs or to emphysema? We don’t know that. In the meantime, can we make plastics safer?' Reference

A Creative Journey: From Art to Advocacy 

As I sit here, wrapped in my fleece (which, ironically, is probably shedding microplastics as we speak), I can't help but wonder: how did a simple task of creating a digital charcoal portrait lead me down this rabbit hole of plastic pollution? It's as if I set out to doodle a tree and ended up mapping the entire forest!

Embracing Change: A Call to Action

This topic's expanse is staggering, and I have only scratched the surface. If you'd like to learn more, I have listed a number of links below. They include my references and suggested steps we can take regarding our clothing-related impact on the environment. I have a lot more to learn and aim to make more conscientious consumer choices.

Join the Conversation

I'm eager to hear about your experiences and thoughts on this issue. Have you ever paused to consider the environmental footprint of your wardrobe? I'd love to hear your insights and comments. Your input would mean the world to me.

Have a wonderful weekend.

For more art, follow me on Instagram and Facebook.

Jane E Porter is a fine artist and illustrator from Scotland, dedicated to exploring and understanding the fascinating interplay between art, psychology and philosophy. As she navigates her own search for meaning, she shares insights and observations made over the past two decades with a delightful mix of wit and wisdom. Join her as she continues her journey, delving into these themes, offering you fresh perspectives and insights on art, identity and storytelling.


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