When making things is a matter of survival, and it happens to dovetail with using materials discarded that trash the planet, a strange alchemy can occur if you’re Mariana Nelson and you use your overwhelming state of narcolepsy and love of the environment as the constraints on your creations. We first came across a piece of Mariana’s a few years ago at a friend’s home – she’d picked it up because, best reason to get something, she had to have it. It was a small circular sculpture she refers to as a Plastic Pouf created from discarded material: specifically plastic table cloths, New York Times and LA times newspaper delivery bags and plastic shopping bags. It was startling to see the transformation of garbage into something so beautiful and thought provoking.
Although she began creating art over 20 years ago she has only been showing professionally for the past five. Yet in that time she has been a Facebook Artist in Resident and has had her work acquired by the Gates Foundation. After stalking her on Instagram we decided to contact her and ended up having a lovely video chat one Sunday afternoon. Here are a few things we learned.
She doesn’t have a BFA and in fact didn’t even finish high school. The latter could be attributed to her narcolepsy that had her falling asleep unexpectedly. The art making didn’t start out intentionally but as a way to cope.
”In my 20s I was working in the stock market of all things and was being studied by Doctors at Stanford and missed a lot of appointments so they did a house call. At the time, I was making weird hangings out of found objects and it was a one bedroom apartment and all of the walls were just hanging with weird stuff I found on the street or plastic I braided and it wasn’t anything I considered art but it was what I did when I was too tired to do something normal but not tired enough to sleep. The doctor came over and said oh my gosh what is all this stuff on your walls and it’s just stuff that I do when I can’t sleep and she was the one, she said Look, you’re never going to work 9-5 you have a brain disorder so you need to start selling this so she bought my first piece and that was 20 years ago.”
She initially began working with trash because as a medium she found it freeing.
”I just started picking stuff up off the street because it bothered me –and I had dogs and I’d just walk and pick stuff up. Also the bar is really low. If I actually go buy paints and a canvas, I need to make something that looks good, right? But with garbage, what are you going to do? It’s garbage. Like there’s no bar – for me it makes me feel free, I don’t have to make something awesome because I’m not going to ruin anything. So I’ve always worked with recycled materials.”
The narcolepsy which makes it impossible to have a “traditional” job also lends itself to an obsessiveness that allows her to perfect her craft.
With the narcolepsy you have these fugue states where I’m too tired to be verbal or do something like days and days of that, so it’s a way of coping, something repetitive and small that I can do in bed. I used to wrap thousands of little balls of thread into a specific pattern which took me 5 years of practice before I could do it and one day I got bored and I had plastic which I braided and braided and then I didn’t like the way the plastic look so I built a little machine to twist the plastic and add some thread to it. I don’t think about the art – it’s a way to manage my time. So each one is the Fibonacci spiral so did thousands of those and then one day I was just over it and I was like I’m just not going to do that anymore. And I’m kind of there with the plastic. I’m looking for something that gives me that really good feeling like ooh this is interesting.
She is always experimenting with materiality
I collected coffee lids from Starbucks: I first started wrapping them in thread and then I started heating them and then I contacted MIT because I didn’t want to do something to create more toxins because you know, with environmental art it can sometimes make things worse. What I learned is those coffee lids are not even recyclable! They’re the same chemical composite as styrofoam but its been reformatted. Everyone knows styrofoam is bad but when we see these coffee lids we have no idea!
Well I figured out a way to heat it really quickly and reduce the amount of fumes –and the amount of cancer I’ll get–(laughs) and then dye them with ink. It’s the only thing that plastic will absorb. After I heat them I have 3 seconds to shape them before they stiffen up, and I just experimented and thought they look like fungus which I love.
I created an installation outside and I was taking pictures and there was a wasp in it which was nice and sad at the same time. The wasp thought it was real, you know? The person who bought it has it out in her yard and it’s held up really well. It’s bad material but it’s great for art!
When she exhausts a technique she moves on to something else.
A library called me recently and was getting rid of all their VCR tapes so I have hundreds of them and I’m just thinking about them until I figure out something to do. I just wait for things to come to me and then work it out. If I have too many options like going to an art store, forget it. I can’t. But if someone gives me something really specific then I can spend a couple of months thinking about it and make something.