Tess Felix has lived and played along the same stretch of coastline for most of her life, giving her an intimate knowledge of its multiple and finely nuanced facets. Creating portraits from plastic debris, she strives to show the human soul. Her figures are a playful response to a serious issue—the perilous state of the ocean and our marine life. While she admires activists and leaders who address the problem, her own voice is that of an artist. The contrast between the humanity of the figures and the plastic materials they are made of suggests that we are part of and responsible for the problem we have created.
1. First of all, your portraits are incredible, it seems almost impossible that they are made of plastic! How do you make them?
My process begins with combing the beaches for interesting plastic shards and small objects like toys and containers. I look for texture, color, shade, and shape. I love a patina of decay caused by photodegradation from sunlight in plastic pieces that have spent a very long time in the ocean. These ocean plastics convey a long story of their journey starting with extraction of oil from the ground.
Once I have collected enough pieces. I wash the collected plastics and sort them by color and hue. This is my pallet. I have six boxes of varying degrees of any particular color. Red, Yellow Blue. Green, Orange, and Purple. Then I have the mid-tones of cream/beige, grays, browns and rust/terra cotta. Finally many boxes of black and white. Lastly, I have a box of silver and gold.
I take a photograph of a person to do a portrait. I make sure there is contrast in the light and shadow so that I have something to work with in terms of modeling a form. I then trace or copy an outline of the sitter onto a wood panel. I begin by building or modeling with the plastic colors. I use scissors to cut the small shapes in the face but I prefer to use whole objects that are recognizable. Finally, I use marine adhesive to stick the plastic to the board.
2. In some of your series, such as Ocean in Crises and Ocean Eco Heros, you deal directly with the perils facing our ocean but in other series, such as your Nudes and Character Studies this theme is less obvious. Why do you choose to work with plastic? Do you always intend for it to carry undertones about pollution or does it carry other significance?
Plastic is everywhere in our lives, in fact, we touch it more than we touch our loved ones—it’s just a brute fact that plastic is a ‘thing in the world”. I’m not sure it’s necessarily important for me to ascribe a meaning to the medium.—plastic does that itself and viewers are invited to consider it how they choose. With the nudes, I think the intimacy created shows just how infected life has become by plastic.
3. In Ocean Eco Heros, there is something daunting about seeing activists depicted in a material that is contrary to their mission, how do you see the duality of these pieces?
I see it a bit differently— to some degree what I’m showing is that these activists are actually transcending the very thing they fight and that’s the image burnout. And if tension remains for the viewer between the subject and the medium, that’s ultimately a good thing. Playfully, Id say most of my subjects enjoy the tension—immortalized in irony.
4. In Ocean in Crises, mermaids make appearances, how did they make their way into your artwork? How do you see fantasy, mythology, and spirituality as a visual language to discuss contemporary issues?
Mermaids have been in my consciousness as long as I can remember. As a child, I loved fairytales—The Brothers Grim, Hans Christian Anderson with illustrations by Arthur Rakham. The storybook and cartoon strip, Rupert the Bear, is another favorite. It has wonderful colorful pictures of magical beings and mermaids illustrated by John Hanold. These illustrations shaped my imagination and love for magic, mystery and the spiritual.
We as humans have been using visual language in the form of fantasy, mythology, and spirituality to deal with issues that we have faced for thousands of years. By looking at contemporary issues through the lens of fantasy and mythology it allows the viewer to make sense of the complex world around us. It allows us to break down those complex issues by allowing us to take a step back, observe, participate and in some cases even manifest. Visual language is contemporary but it also timeless; while our societal issues are constantly changing, visual languages are still effective ways for us as a society to process the world we live in. Visual Language at its core is a culmination of the past, present, and future, and can serve as an effective medium for bringing people into the current moment and fostering mindfulness.
5. Overall, how do you hope your art can contribute to protecting our ocean and marine life?
I think, if I’m lucky, what I do in my work is to show that the human spirit and beauty still has the power to rise above the ugly. To arrange the ugly into a beautiful thing is a metaphor for demonstrating that we have the power to overcome the very thing that threatens us. By elevating movements leaders in the work, it also creates a pathway for the viewer to get involved or seek out those who have track records for making real change. That’s what my art has done for me. If anything, it’s another way to start a dialog that builds a more robust movement and resistance.
To learn more about the fantastical world of Tess Felix check out her website and Instagram below!
Author: Carola Dixon
Editor: Cassia Patel