Aurora Robson was born in Toronto, grew up in Hawaii, and now lives and works in New York City.. Her parents were “Hippies” and her childhood was a bit unsettled. She liked to paint and supported herself at fifteen by painting murals in restaurants. In 1998 she went to live with her brother in Seattle. He had opened a gallery, and she learned to weld in order to help him with his art. She returned to New York City in 1990, and without a high school degree, she passed the exam for admission to Columbia University. Two years later she completed her BA degree in Visual Arts and Art History, magna cum laude. She became a certified master welder, opened her own welding studio in New York and became special events director for MTV. She made things for them that were used and then thrown away. She quit.
An eco-activist, Robson creates art from that which is thrown away. “Every choice we make has consequences for the environment. The more I learn about plastic pollution, the more motivated I am to do something about it. Art is a global language, and pollution is a global issue, so merging the two to find potential solutions…” became her motivating force. Her first images were derived from childhood dreams and nightmares, and were intended to take something with a negative impact and turn it into something positive. Her media was plastic bottles collected from the trash. Her first works were two-dimensional and hard to see. In 2003 she realized, “Maybe I should see if I could make the nightmares three-dimensional.” Her decision to use plastic bottles was confirmed in 2008, after learning about the Great Pacific Garbage Dump, which is thought to be larger in area than the United States.
“Lift” (2010) is an installation at the Gibbs Recreation and Wellness Center at Rice University in Houston, Texas. The work has a solar powered motor that makes it rotate, and it is composed of 10,000 discarded plastic bottles and 3,000 bottle caps. “Lift” is about 13 feet round, painted in a variety of yellows and greens, and hangs from the ceiling like a radiant sun. Robson often employs local groups of students and engages homeless people to collect bottles. She pays more than the deposit. “I choose the materials I use to work with usually because they’re things that people don’t care about, and I really like the challenge of taking objects that are considered useless or without potential and transforming them in such a way that they fulfill some of their potential.”
Always conscious of the environment, she stopped using toxic adhesive glues. Most of work is colorfully painted and she uses non- toxic paint. Already a master welder she changed to aluminum rivets as they were less toxic; now there is an industrial plastic welder, that heats to melting but not burning. Serrated, spring-based scissors make it easier to cut large amounts of plastic. The bottles also need to be well cleaned. In most instances environmentally conscious groups are enlisted as participants to gather bottles and to share in and learn from the experience.
Robson started a website as soon as she began making art full time: “It has been the easiest way to introduce people to my work around the world. It has provided me with a diverse audience, a growing collector base, a great deal of publicity, and an effective platform for communicating my ideas. I love the internet.” She also generously shares her processes to encourage other artists to recycle.
Robson’s participation in one-person and group exhibitions is extensive, but she receives commissions involving large permanent or semi-permanent installations. “Be Like Water” (2010) (25’ tall, 120’ long, 14’ wide) was funded by the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Cultural Affairs and several galleries. Seven public and private schools in Philadelphia collected the 80,000 plastic bottle caps and 9000 plastic bottles. Instead of painting the bottles in bright color, her usual practice, she leaves these bottles either clear or white. They are hung suspended from the ceiling of the large center hall of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Be Like Water” generates a magical environment and calls to mind a myriad of images such as a majestic water fall, a star cluster, or even a spectral image. Robson often comments on her work and use of plastic with water related terms: “Plastic is so malleable, you can do just about anything with, transforming something that already exists, rather than creating something additional, effectively restructuring the flow…mobility and flexibility are keys to getting through any kind of obstacle, be it mental, physical, or spiritual. I try to be like water.”
“Dyno” (2015) (11’x6’x5’), a permanent work commissioned by Kingbrae Garden, New Brunswick, Canada, is fun. Robson conceived and constructed the piece during a month long residency in New Brunswick. Fishing is a major industry in New Brunswick, and “Dyno” is entirely composed of plastic boxes used to transport the fish. The boxes are not recyclable. Robson comments, “Dyno is a meditation of the dynamic and mutable nature of things. For example, a glass of water may become part of a cloud over time, or a piece of problematic piece of plastic waste may become a piece of “sustainable art.” If the viewer could look closely at the work, the embossed company name DYNO remains visible on several pieces. Creating a dinosaur from plastic boxes labeled DYNO was certainly a fun and totally apt decision, even though the funky blue color does not scream dinosaur. It is worth noting that the DYNO Company no longer exists.
“Troika” (2015) (approximately 108’’x112’x120’’) is part of the exhibition Gravity Schmavity, and another example of the malleability of plastic and the creative talents of Robson. Commissioned for the Arboretum at Penn State University, University Park, both the works’ names and the images are delightful. “Troika” is composed of 9,214 tons of garbage that is 62% of the Penn State’s total waste stream, and was either recycled or composted. A second work in the glass house at the Arboretum is called “Ding Dang” (2017) (108’’x108’’x 40’’).
Robson’s work was discussed in The Environmental Magazine, January 20, 2011. Robson creates approximately 20 green jobs with each large scale project. If a project is temporary and to be destroyed, the pieces are delivered to a recycling company that can recycle the specific objects. Robson notes, “The vast majority of them [plastics] have way more structural integrity than s necessary. There is no reason to make bottles this strong. As far as I’m concerned, the word “disposable” should be struck from the human vocabulary. Every piece of plastic that’s ever been created still exists! It goes inside fishes’ bellies and then we eat fish, and we’re like, “Why are cancer rates going up?”
In 2008 Robson founded Project Vortex, an organization of international artists, scientists, designers, architects and manufacturers who “are actively intercepting the plastic waste stream as part of our independent practices. This is a constantly expanding network. Plastic is designed with archival integrity so it makes an excellent medium for a vast number of creative applications.” Project Vortex continues today and has over 50 members. On the web-site, works by the artists are for sale at reasonable prices with part of the profits going to environmental causes.
In recognition of her artistic talent, Robson was awarded the Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant and the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in 2009. Robson was invited in 2010 to teach a course titled “Sculpture + Intercepting the Waste Stream” at Mary Baldwin University in Staunton, Virginia. Several universities have had her teach the course, and “each time with astoundingly positive result.” In 2013 Robson delivered the TED talk, “Trash+Love.”
Robson receives a continuous stream of invitations for one-person exhibitions and commissions. In the last few years they include “Arise” (2017), commissioned by the Lauritzen Gardens of Omaha, Nebraska; 30 sculptures for the gardens at the Orange County Arts Council of New York; and “The Tide is High” from the exhibition Sea Change (2017), commissioned by the Halsey Institute for Contemporary Art in South Carolina.
In 2019 the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas commissioned Robson to create a sculpture of plastic straws which had been banned from use. The 25 foot tall sculpture will be composed of 20 million straws repurposed by Robson. Locally, Incidental Monuments, Designing with Discards was exhibited in early 2020 at the Silber Gallery at Goucher College.
Robson is aware of the irony implication of her work. In her TED talk she states, “The Mac Arthur Foundation recently released a study projecting that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans.” She knows her plastic sculptures could easily last for a 100 to 1000 years of more, but at least they have a “beautiful purpose, and don’t have to go through the costly recycling process…Image there are no more plastic bottled for me to work with. That would be amazing! I would have to find another way to interrupt the waste stream to make my work…One can always dream.”
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.