Kelsey Merreck Wagner (b. 1990) is a textile artist and environmental activist. She received her B.A. (Studio Arts; focus: printmaking) at Western Michigan University; her M.A. (Cultural Studies & Sustainability; focus: community-engaged arts) at Appalachian State University, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University (Anthropology; focus: human-animal relationships, environmental art, and activism). She has exhibited work internationally in Cambodia, Thailand, Canada, and Italy, as well as across the United States including Illinois, Texas, New York, North Carolina, and Michigan; and has done curatorial work with and for art, culture and education institutions around the world. Her research and artmaking are at the nexus of aesthetics, an anthropological inquiry of environmental ruin at human hands, and hope for socio-environmental justice. She is especially interested in using art in science communication to raise awareness, initiate conversation and spark change towards coexistence among all species on the planet.
How can we use ugly materials to make aesthetically pleasing art? How can art contribute to environmental stewardship? What are my responsibilities as an artist and human being? How can art inspire cultural change, and social and environmental justice?
As a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology, I obsess over these questions in thoughts, conversations, and papers, and they always bleed into my art. These obsessions are well-suited for a textile artist, as weaving is an inherently meditative process connecting the mind and body with creative production. When I am between academic deadlines and a freshly warped loom, I spend long hours daydreaming about projects and sourcing fibers, often during walks and hikes outside. As I live in the Appalachian region close to Black Mountain College, where textile artist Anni Albers taught, I am continually thinking of the weavings and other artwork she and her students created from recycled and natural materials. During my walks through the forested mountains and streams, my disappointment at seeing trash on the landscape sparked a new idea for a creative piece.
Soon I was collecting plastic bags from friends, family, and colleagues to use for weavings in my “Loom & Doom” series. After choosing a color scheme, planning the design, and warping the loom, I begin by sorting the plastic by color and texture before cutting them into long strips I weave with. This is followed by many hours of weaving, which is especially complicated as I can't wrap the plastic strips onto shuttles and I have to pull the plastic strips through the loom by hand. The deconstruction of these plastic items and their transformation into art connects me to our planet and helps me advocate for the ecosystem I live in. 100 billion plastic bags are used by Americans each year, with many of them making their way to our oceans, greenspaces, and backyards. Despite increasing awareness about sustainable practices, alternatives to plastics, and bans on single-use bags, our plastic obsession continues to have dire consequences for humans, animals, and the ecosystems we live in. The process of weaving abandoned mediums into a narrative of human-environment relations points to the complex web of ecology we live in, and acts as a creative intervention against plastic.