‘Climate Change – The Plastic Age’: Sustainable Art Done Correctly.  

By Niall Houston

17 April 2022

(Climate Change – The Plastic Age when it was on show in the Mitchell Library, Glasgow. Photograph: Niall Houston)

How art can make a difference not just culturally, but environmentally.

Walking into the Mitchell Library one day, a curious piece of artwork caught my attention and pulled me over to it like an ebbing tide pulls driftwood. What sparked my interest about it was the vast variety in colours, the rich contrasts in materials and its simple yet elegant design. Yet upon closer inspection, I noticed that the components of this artwork were made from plastics – the horrible, manky little eyesores which plague Scotland’s shores and beaches, polluting our natural landscape.

The only question to be asked was how could things so ugly and destructive be turned into art? Well, Gail McGregor-Mason has done exactly this.  

(Marine debris collected from Scottish shores to make a sculpture. Photograph: Niall Houston)

Gail, who is 61 and now retired, originally comes from Balloch near Glasgow, and spent a large part of her education in art schools around universities across the UK. She retired from work as a senior art psychotherapist, which saw her working from primary schools and secondary schools, to care homes and prisons. Although having an extremely interesting career which saw her working with the criminally insane, throughout her life Gail has always been a practising artist on the side and has had many exhibitions.

Wishing for a quieter life, Gail moved to the Isle of Skye a few years ago with her husband – who is also retired – to be surrounded by breath-taking scenery, gorgeous coastlines and the dreary misty mornings that the islands of Scotland offer; the home to an absolute plethora of muses for an artist to choose from.

Whilst speaking to her however, she told me how she was absolutely horrified at all the marine debris she had found scattered around the local beaches in Skye. She said: “I could not believe how much rubbish I was finding. And so, instead of putting all this rubbish in the recycle bin, I thought I must turn something ugly into something positive.”

(Colourful seashells at the base create a stark contrast with the plastics. Photograph: Niall Houston)

Thus, the seeds of her idea had been sewn to make ‘Climate Change – the Plastic Age’. In the beginning, it took her a good 12 months to collect all the pieces together. The sculpture’s components are built up from recycled materials of marine debris, such as fishing nets and wire, with a huge piece of driftwood she found in the middle. All of these materials were collected around the Skye shores, near Gail’s house – which makes you wonder how much rubbish is really out there? We do not really see much from the road, sat in our cars or in our cities. But this debris litters the coastline.

What was also fascinating was the idea behind the sculpture. What did it mean? Concerning this, Gail eloquently told me:

“The two forks at the top part of the driftwood resemble the ideal beaches that we want, and that we love to stroll upon as kids and adults. The second part is like the beaches of today, covered in marine debris. The third part is like a skirt. As the marine debris gets bigger and bulkier, this was divided into 4 sections in my loom which I sewed together with marine fishing nets. The more I built it, the more it looked like a large, colourful, woven sculpture of a female form reaching skywards imploring the gods for help.”

(The making of the sculpture. Photograph: Gail McGregor-Mason)

“I have always loved recycling and always worked with sound objects, and I am always really interested in whether those objects could talk and what stories could they tell? Where have they travelled from and where are they going to?”

What is also incredibly fascinating is that Gail made this sculpture using a loom. But not just an ordinary loom. She had found a wooden frame someone had discarded into a skip and innovatively thought to take it and reuse it for a purpose. Later, she bought all the correct utensils needed to be able to weave and thus created a loom. However, it is the very idea of re-using discarded materials, in order to make a sculpture out of discarded materials, which is deeply profound about this artwork.

Think about how much you throw away in a year? All that rubbish you throw in the bin, to just go and buy some more junk which you will inevitably throw away again – thus creating a cycle of waste. This sculpture does not only make you think about various forms of art, but it also truly makes you ponder about the cycle of our habits, the age we live in when we buy and discard, buy and discard … the plastic age! Will we ever change from this – or are we dooming ourselves until no longer are our beaches filled with white sand and grey pebbles; rather they are neon blue, orange and purple with plastic debris.

After speaking to Gail and listening to her enthusiasm, I could not help but get energised myself. She is passionate about her work; she cares about the environment, and she wants others to see art in recycling.

(Touching messages of hope left in a notebook beside the sculpture. Photograph: Niall Houston)

She constantly holds seminars with children from all ages – teaching them about art and about how to recycle properly. If children can begin seeing art in our waste, then there could be hope for us all. In truth, is that not what an artist does? They teach us to see beauty where others see ugliness?

I cannot help but want to rummage through my rubbish bins and maybe have a go myself at creating something myself.

‘Climate Change – the Plastic Age’ will be touring around Scotland until January 2024.

You can find out more about Gail on her Instagram @gailmcgregormason

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