Schuylkill Center Exhibit Showcases the Beauty of Plastic Waste

Kristina Garcia Wade, for the Shuttle

Aurora Robson:
Aglow opening reception

Thursday, June 6, 7–9 p.m.

Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education

8480 Hagy’s Mill Road, Philadelphia

Colorful, sculptural and illuminated from within, Aurora Robson’s work is arrestingly beautiful. It’s only upon closer inspection — or label reading — that we realize it’s constructed from plastic waste. 

Aurora’s vision and skill transcend a material we inherently think of as disposable or cheap, an assumption she challenges. Her work is currently on display at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Aglow, a gallery exhibition that opened May 22. A special reception will be held Thursday, June 6, at 7 p.m., with curator and artist talks as well as a guided tour. The exhibit will be on view through Aug. 24.

Aglow begins in the gallery, with dim lighting to showcase the light emanating from the sculpture. After wandering among abstract organic shapes in warm tones, visitors can venture out on the trails to view Robson’s outdoor installations.

“The Schuylkill Center is unique and wonderful, particularly with regard to its dedication to fostering harmonious and innovative dialogues between nature and culture,” Robson said.

It’s an exciting moment to showcase this work. Plastic is a huge part of the environmental conversation, from recycling challenges that have led Philadelphia to burn much of its plastic waste to increasing support for reducing our dependency on single-use plastics such as straws and bags. 

“People are so confused about plastic,” Robson said. “They think of it as disposable when it is precisely the opposite. Plastic is designed with ‘archival integrity,’ which is perhaps its greatest design flaw. 

“When left in the natural environment, the majority of commercially produced plastics are estimated to last anywhere from hundreds to thousands of years. Historically, the vast majority of plastics we put in our recycling bins are instead finding their way into our landfills and waterways, where they proceed to photo-degrade over hundreds of years and break down into micro-plastics and smaller and smaller toxic particulates.”

The negative impact of plastic on our ecosystem disturbs the artist, who interrupts this cycle through art.

“My inquiry into plastic debris as an art medium has led me to believe that this material, with its inherent ‘plasticity,’ has great potential specifically for art applications in which it can do no harm,” she said. “My aim is to help develop a culture of creative stewardship through my inquiry into the potential of this material for fine art and design applications.”

Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art at the Schuylkill Center, said presenting Robson’s work is a timely way to shed light on the issue of plastic while providing a different look at the material. 

“There are a lot of things about plastic that she actually likes,” Catanese said. “It has valuable qualities for sculpture, like translucence and pliability, but surprisingly few artists have been working with it. Aurora imbues this material — which is more often discarded en masse, uncared for, even reviled — with so much care, beauty, and attention that it shifts our perspective.”

The Schuylkill’s Environmental Art program creates opportunities for both artists and audiences to explore and interpret the natural world as well as current ecological issues, offering new pathways to connect people and nature.

“I think people are most receptive to beneficial influences when we are in natural settings,” Robson said. “A dialogue about a potentially depressing topic like plastic pollution can be depressing and make us feel powerless, but with sunlight and trees, it is easier to see how we can all be active agents of positive change in our world.”

The exhibition is supported by the Joseph Robert Foundation.