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Envision Us Faculty & Staff Exhibition: Q&A with Elizabeth Mackie

Elizabeth Mackie, Microplastics, 2021

Photographs: George W Chevalier

Q & A with Elizabeth Mackie

Gallery director Margaret Pezalla-Granlund interviewed Elizabeth Mackie about her work in February 2021. Mackie’s work is included in the 2021 TCNJ faculty and staff exhibition, Envision Us.

Margaret Pezalla-Granlund: The first question I’ve been asking people about their work in that faculty exhibition is just to tell me about your artwork. Tell me about your piece, where it came from what you’ve been working on- what’s up with this piece.

Elizabeth Mackie: Okay, this piece relates to my work on the Delaware and this started and during my sabbatical in 2019. When I was photographing and researching Delaware and looking at climate change and pollutants in the water.

MP:  In the Delaware river?

EM: In the Delaware River, and this is a continuation of my concern about climate change and with my earlier work being on the order mountain range and I was looking at researching that for a number of years and I did….I can’t- I’m not gonna say how many pieces, but I did a lot of pieces based on that a lot of large installations and I visited the mountains many times.

I was in contact with Swiss researchers to find out, you know, their research and their predictions for the whole entire Alps and this area was unique because it wasn’t really discovered or developed until 100 years ago, so I had 100-year history that I could with, so the mountain range projects were based on that and the village that is in the center of it, so the mountains surround the entire village and I had a lot of contacts. I was in contact with the main photographer that filmed inside the glaciers, and I had friends who knew everybody in the village, so I had a lot of access, including an interview with Reinhold Messner, who has property in the village and a restaurant and museum, so he had a lot to say because he’s you know famous German mountain climber. So after that project, I still did some work on that and 2019, by visiting the village and that area, again, but at the same time, I had spent the whole spring working on Delaware.

Then there was a big exhibition, and that I was part of in Philadelphia on the seaport museum, Boat Basin. So that was kind of the beginning of this piece. My original concept for that that I proposed was to make this big headless, bodiless dress. And to cover with fabric and to cover it with these images and microplastics, because I was concerned with the number of plastics entering the waterway because of washing clothes and synthetics. So this whole idea of our clothes that we wash and it just kind of invisibly goes into our waterways was quite disturbing to me. I used all synthetic fabrics for the big dress but at the same time I looked at the microplastics in relation to that and decided it was too much, so these little round-like microplastics and basically carried around with me for over a year.

You know I even took them to Europe, when I went to Europe because I was just there’s something about them, but they weren’t working the way I wanted them to work.

MP: And these are the discs that are….

EM: The round discs that I had made and thinking that the first day we’re gonna be sewn on to this dress but then the dress became more about movement fabric movement and representing the water, and you know the woman, that- the height of the actual piece for that particular project was the height of the water rising over a number of years in the Delaware water basin. Also, that was the first outdoor project I ever did and an interesting part about that is when when they accepted the piece, they were set, they said we’re really concerned that this piece will not survive.

You know it’s on- this is a title area and there’s a lot of wind and the other problems that you can run into in that area, so they said I probably need to get an engineer, to make sure I know what I’m doing and I didn’t. Y’know, my usual approach is: I’m gonna solve it myself.

And I ended up coming with the idea of having- and also they want to spin because they thought if it was spinning, then it would move with the wind.

And I’m thinking I’m not doing something that’s twirling around on the docks that’s nine-foot tall, especially it’s going to go flying off somewhere, so I designed an armature- a metal armature, that and a bolting system that….it was bolted to the wood, then the wood was bolted to the docks because you can’t hammer into it, or do anything to the docks so it had to be non-destructible.

Then, the dress had slits so the wind could move through it and that also served as a device for strips of fabric that had been dyed to float out with the wind.

And surprisingly, it did not fade- First of all, the dyeing did not fade because I did a lot of research. I’m always researching materials, as well as the science so that’s important.

So nothing faded. The piece was not destroyed. It actually ended up being rain, winds… We had some really bad storms. I was the only piece in the whole entire show that did not receive any damage and a lot of them received major damage, pieces that they were sure we’re going to be solid ended up just breaking apart because of the weather and the location, so that was pretty exciting, so I realized that, you know, it’s not always those solid pieces that work it’s sometimes just thinking about how to interact with the environment and be part of the environment that makes things work.

So out of that came the microplastics. After coming back from Europe, I spent two and a half months in Europe traveling and researching…In summer, 2019.

And after coming back, I decided, as I was working on this big piece that I really wanted to try to explore other ways of working with the microplastic images. After the show at the seaport museum, I started thinking: Okay, how do I put these together in some way to make like a screen or to just sort of show the sometimes invisible sometimes visible aspects of what plastics are doing to our waterways and that’s how the whole screen came up.  The problems with that were, once you do all of these-

First of all, it takes a long time. It took over a year to do all the etching, and each basically an hour and a half for like six to eight pieces.

And we have 594 pieces.

The second thing was OK, now I had this great idea: I want to be a wall, how does it hold together and not look really bulky?

Because most of the connections that I could come up with that I knew were stable were also ugly. You know, they were more obvious than the subtlety of the microplastic circles, so I finally just decided to try jewelry jump rings and that’s what I use and, we just glued them together and we didn’t know to the last minute, whether they would actually hold the weight.]

MP: And they disappear, I mean it really looks like floating in space.

EM: First, I went plastic ones, and I realized plastic ones would probably have been a little bulkier than the ones that we ended up using but that also took a long time to assemble, and then the final part was the hanging, how in the world do we hang this piece. You know, when we have sort of limited staff and we needed to have some type of distancing because of you know, the regulations now but it worked out. And so,  that’s my first big piece that, kind of steps away from fabric or paper and work works with the laser cutter and plastic.

MP: Well, that leads to my next question, which is about materials and, like, I know that you’ve worked a lot with specially handmade papers where you’ve had students helping you create these big sculptural installations using paper. And I knew about, you know,  the fabric that was and your seaport piece, and I wondered about making that transition to use plastic discs because, in some ways, it seems like they interact with light. You know in kind of the same way that especially your paper pieces, so the light was really important. Are they plexiglass? How did you end up with that material?

EM: Well, they are plexiglass but first I started actually etching paper and that’s what led to these so I was etching paper and the light was coming through and one day I just decide to take plastic and see what I could do with that and I really liked the results so that’s how it started, so I had these microplastic images that I was thinking, maybe I’ll do a handmade paper book out of them.

But they weren’t circles at the time, but because of the plan you know, the idea of working with synthetic fabric, I then said: well why not synthetic plastic as well.

So that led to me etching on plastic. I was also just curious, I’m putting everything in the laser cutter to see what it would do and I hadn’t seen anything before that I really liked. When people just kind of etch into the plastic, with lines or other photographic images, I wasn’t really that interested in that approach. So when I took the photographs and really kind of edge more deeply into the plastic it started to get give this feeling of you know other types of plastics that are in the waterways. So always materials kind of come to me because I’m always experimenting and you know I’m never quite satisfied with just one way, although I do still continue to work in a variety of ways.

MP: Oh yeah um, and I was curious about like, how you’ve been using the maker space because it seems like that’s really that’s been kind of an inspiration for quite a bit of your work recently, right?

EM: Well it’s been a while actually. IMM originally had a laser cutter in a closet basically. And you had to open the window and you had to sit there with a blanket to make sure that everything didn’t go on fire.

So that was the first one, and I guess, I was the only faculty outside of IMM students and IMM faculty that use that space, so I still remember one Christmas doing a whole piece on rice production and how rice chain, global warming, and saltwater is was affecting rice production, so they had to come up with a new type of rice that would grow in saltwater, so the innovations of rising sea levels and I was doing this piece for a show in Brazil and I spent the whole Christmas vacation slowly etching these little pieces that took forever to do and putting an accordion book together.

So that kind of was the beginning, then I started experimenting with all kinds of things on this little you know these little things because that’s all I could do.

So when they first started the new maker space they had a much smaller laser cutter and I immediately started using that and once again I was experimenting with handmade paper, machine paper, how it would etch in unique ways that I had never seen before, and so I developed a lot of different techniques around that and continue to produce smaller pieces because that’s all you can really do. I mean I could produce something that would fit in the laser cutter but then could expand out to be, you know, six-foot – eight-foot and I could also ship them. So I was doing these accordion books and shipping them and then, of course, when they purchased the larger cutter, I just continued working with that. I’ve also attended two summers of ITP camp, which is a maker space camp and that’s a month-long camp in New York City at NYU and…

MP: That sounds great.

EM: Yeah it was fabulous. So I’ve also thought about other ideas with technology-have always been interested sort of in that intersection with technology, but not always using it in my artwork. I mean I’d love 3D printing if they weren’t so small. But at this point they’re a little and it just for some reason I just haven’t been able to find a way to think about that or the fact that I may have to make 100 or something and it’s going to take even a lot longer than the possibility, you know, making them microplastics.

MP: They’re small and not super fast.

EM: I haven’t had time you know to do that. I also needed a lot of experimentation because I’m not interested, exactly, and what I see so far so. You know I have every you have to kind of make things your own, and you know with all kinds of technology and I do really like working with the laser cutter and the surprises that I get. So that’s… you know you try something and you’re not sure you don’t have an image of how it’s going to work and we just did a book. Working with my muse students this past January and into the fall, we did this book that’s handmade paper. It does one thing that’s like…you know, we can cut it, but if we try to etch it because we’re trying to etch a river, you know sort of the indication of a river, for another book that we want to send out to exhibitions in Japan.

I said before, I’ve had this light pink kind of whitish colored mark when you try to do the raster versus you know the vector and basically, we tried it and it was perfect. It was a surprise because it’s burning paper and it’s not consistent because it’s handmade.

You know you it’s not like a machine-made paper, so you get all these little inconsistencies is our first so we figured that line out that was just gorgeous and the change is almost like a watercolor as it went through the pages of, you know, the big long pages of the book, so we put that with cutting. You know that really worked well, then we tried it with another type of image on pink paper that had these white specks, and the color there was also pretty remarkable it just sort of changed the whole image in ways that I didn’t expect. So, even though I had been working for it for years- I mean not years, but a fairly long time with machine paper: and getting a nice brown and creating this one type of image that was very much more predictable. When you work with handmade paper it’s unpredictable and that’s sort of the pleasure of knowing you don’t know what you’re going to get exactly and sometimes you get good surprises and other times It just doesn’t work but that’s part of all then you know that’s part of art-making. If you don’t have problems to solve, then, and you know, have an idea what’s gonna look like then it’s not so that I don’t do it basically simple enough.

MP: Well, that leads me to my last question. I love this intersection of handmade paper and technology, bringing you something that you never could have expected. And having that sort of wonderful surprise, and that makes me wonder like,  what’s next? What’s the next thing you want to research? What’s the next thing you want to try? What’s next for you?

EM: Well, I am planning on still working with the microplastics. I don’t know if it will be in plastic, though. I’m not sure about the medium. I know I have several projects right now that I’m trying to… one I’m starting and a couple that I’m trying to finish in the spring that has to do with still the microplastics, but I’m making him a paper for it now. And that takes a while. I’ve had trouble with the handmade paper because of the lack of any type of humidity in our buildings, they basically bake and shrink the paper. I finally had to bring it home from the college and put it in my basement and tend it. My students have to do the same thing we’re getting good results, but I’d always make paper in the summer or in a very humid environment.

MP: There’s no lack of humidity.

EM: Well, there should be no lack of humidity, but yeah exactly. Our building’s heat is so dry that it just shrinks everything. So I’ve been working with that and I’m going to make a series of books. You know, once I finish those books, then I want to go on to some bigger pieces I do want to revisit. I have the footage and the photography that I have from my sabbatical that I just pushed aside, because I was working on this big installation and so all the research I did over my sabbatical has been sitting, and you know I have hours and hours of footage that I need to put together. And I’m thinking of combining that again with handmade paper and projection so, big sheets. So that’s probably the next project I’ll handle and then we’ll see I mean I added the Schuylkill river recently. We did half of a project during MUSE, and you know that the other half is still waiting because that’s going to be more of a photogram, dye process. They ended up being 10 feet wide. A little too big for what we needed but things kind of grew. It took all summer dyeing fabric and then when we came together for MUSE in the fall, we did the first skirt and then we decided and needed a second one that was more transparent, so the first ones all dyed fabric of representing the Schuylkill River, and the next one will be transparent, representing almost photogram type images that represent all the microplastics that are sort of the hidden..the hidden parts of the water. Which are not relating to the bottles so much that comes up on the shores, you know, what’s physically in the water, that we can’t see.

So that piece still has to be worked out, and I have technical problems we had because we couldn’t figure out a fan system because the skirts are supposed to flow, so we want a fan underneath and it just wasn’t working. I couldn’t find enough fans at this time of the year to try. We just ran out of time, so we just set that aside and I’ll do that work this summer.

I’ve applied for MUSE, and if I get that then that will be one of the MUSE projects.

MP: That sounds great, yeah. It sounds like you always have something happening.

EM: Too much.

MP: Yes, yeah. And I like that you work at a variety of skills that you do these kind of handheld book scale projects, but then also these really, you know, large public scale projects and they really seem to inform each other back and forth so.

EM: Yeah that might work in multiple things at once has always been important to my process. You know, at first, I’m like okay: I’m here, and here, and here, but they always relate, so it makes more sense to do that way, and also to collaborate. You know, as many- I used to do my own sound many times, now I collaborate on sound and sometimes even ended up on video projects. You know I have to reach out and it’s interesting to collaborate and that’s been true for my whole process. I kind of go in and out of collaborations. Early on, I collaborated for five years with a dancer and we did projects together, which was one of the things I would, you know, like it’s always multiple things, yes.