The current Spalding House exhibition Plastic Fantastic? is about getting you to think about plastic—the role it plays in your life, and role you play in plastic’s life. Curator Aaron Padilla does that through art. While you mull plastic over in your brain, one artist in the show is clear on what she thinks about plastic.

Dianna Cohen uses the humble plastic bag as her medium, creating candy-colored collages that have the vibrant pop impact of a Stuart Davis painting. Ironically it is her fascination with plastic bags as an art element that led her to learn the science behind plastic, and eventually to co-found the Plastic Pollution Coalition, a global alliance of individuals, organizations, businesses and policymakers working toward a world free of plastic pollution and its toxic impact on humans, animals, the ocean and the environment.

Her plastic activism has transformed her everyday life, and if you sit her down to talk about her art, it doesn’t take long for the conversation to drift to…single-use plastic. (She gave a Ted Talk about it.)  Cohen was in Honolulu for the Feb. 3 exhibition opening—after working on an art project with sixth- to eighth-graders in Waimea, Big Island, to create a giant albatross out of Polystyrene from plate lunches. While on O‘ahu, she even did an impromptu collaborative work involving homemade paper and bits of marine plastic debris with fellow Plastic Fantastic? artist Maika‘i Tubbs and museum art instructor Allison Roscoe—and took some time to talk plastic bags.

You’ve been working with plastic bags in your art for more than 25 years—what first inspired you to work with this unconventional medium?
Dianna Cohen:
It developed over time. I studied painting at UCLA, and I was making botanical paintings of flies and spiders. It was paying my rent. Then I became interested in brown paper market bags—I loved how they came in all different shades of brown and had different text printed on them. So I deconstructed these and made abstract two-dimensional pieces out of them. Then I added sewing to them as a drawing element, to make them more sturdy.

One summer in Belgium, I discovered that when you go to a homeopathic pharmacy, they give you plastic bags with botanical images of plants on them, often with the latin name of the plant. It thought it was so ironic, but also kind of beautiful. I was original a biology major, so I have an interest in nature.

Plastic bags were introduced at the market near where I live in Los Angeles in the late 1970s. And back then, the selling point for plastic bags was that you were “saving a tree.” When I first took a bit of bag and sewed it into a piece, it was a eureka moment. It was such an interesting material, a loaded material—it represented the future because it’s a truly manmade material, made from a byproduct of processing fossil fuels. This was fascinating to me. In my first five to eight years of working with plastic, I was just celebrating it as a material—like The Jetsons, and that last sequence of The Graduate, it represents the future. It allows us to exponentially evolve or invent more lightweight airplanes, cars, appliances, technology, this phone headset I’m wearing right now. It’s an incredible material. I was excited about the colors, the text printed on it. I like to cut up pieces and put text from different bags back together to say what I’d like to say. After the first eight years, I noticed that in some of my pieces, the bags started to fissure and break up. I thought that meant plastic was ephemeral, like us. I started researching it from a scientific perspective and learned that it can fissure and break apart—but now, many years later, we know it doesn’t really degrade and it does not disappear. We now have to deal with microplastics at a nanoparticle level—nurdles, mermaids tears, microbeads, microfibers. In parts of the ocean, they are finding more plankton than plastic, and plankton are ingesting plastic.

"Wave Lens" (2007) by Dianna Cohen is on view in "Plastic Fantastic?" Plastic bags and thread. Collection of Jackson Browne.

“Wave Lens” (2007) by Dianna Cohen is on view in “Plastic Fantastic?” Plastic bags and thread. Collection of Jackson Browne.

Since you started working with plastic bags, it’s become a political issue, with cities, states (Hawai‘i!) and countries around the world instituting bans. Has that affected how you see the plastic bag and what it means to your work?
At this point my activism and artwork have become so intertwined, I am very happy to see those changes coming into effect, and see people adding a fee or tax onto plastic bags. We hope that is a disincentive for people to take plastic bags. But plastic bags are only the tip of the plastic-pollution iceberg.

I see young people that are doing the DIY [do it yourself] scene, and are learning how to make and fix things. That’s an empowering way to live. I particularly think about that when I’m in Hawai‘i, which has traditions of sustainable farming practices, fishing, navigation, and arts such as weaving.

Plastic is incredible material, but when we design it to be disposable, we are using a valuable material in an irresponsible way. I’d like to see companies treat plastic like the valuable material it is, and to find nontoxic, safer versions they could use to deliver their product.

What is your process? What comes first, the design or the plastic bag?
I do sketches and have ideas but often it can come from what I have on hand and playing with the material. Although I don’t know if it was so smart to be touching all those plastic bags for so many years.

The pieces for this show are framed, but I also make pieces that drape or dangle from the wall. I’ve also done more sculptural pieces where I combine plastic bags with natural elements, like Circulatory, which includes a grapefruit tree—suspended upside down it looks like human body. I’ve been doing more works combining things from the natural world, like driftwood, to make people think about the connections.

Now that plastic bags are falling out of favor, do you have a hard time getting enough discarded bags for your work?
I no longer take plastic bags when I’m out shopping, even if I have to load up my purse. I have quite a collection from other people sending them to me. I have a ton of them, folded and filed in cardboard boxes. I’m looking forward to the extinction of single use single-use plastic.

Until eight years ago I was still buying cases of bottled water for my family. Once you begin to learn about disposable plastic, and see images of animals dying with their stomachs full of it, it is not hard to begin to make some changes as a consumer. I hope this exhibition will inspire kids to change, and give some thought to the material and think about source reduction—part of reducing the amount of plastic made is not to buy it.

Dianna Cohen, center, on the opening day of “Plastic Fantastic?” with, left to right, Aaron Padilla, Maika‘i Tubbs, Kim Johnson and Jack Johnson.

So in Hawai‘i, supermarkets no longer use plastic bags. What is another way Hawai‘i residents can help reduce single-use plastic—an important issue when you live on an island?

I was at LAX on my way here. When I travel, I carry a refillable stainless steel bottle, two different steel cups including a double-walled insulated steel cup, bamboo utensils, a reusable stainless steel straw, and a reusable bag. It’s like being a camper. I’ve got a kit in my car, and one for my carry-on bag. At the airport I went to a café and said, “I’d like to buy a lemonade, and would it be possible to get it in my own cup?” They said, “Sure.” I bought a mint lemonade and I said, “Please, no straw,” and they gave it to me and the manager charged me the refill price. I looked at my receipt, and saw they charged me $2. I asked, “How much would it be if it was in your disposable container?” and they said, “$3.15.” Wow, I saved $1.15.

If you go to an office or school every day, and you have a schedule that you repeat, and that schedule includes stopping at Starbucks or getting lunch at a particular place—what would it take to begin to bring your own cup with you and engage that place and ask if they would consider incentivizing the use of reusables? These are little things but they have big repercussions. If one person asks to not have a straw, the server might ask why don’t you want a straw? It inspires conversation. It’s interesting to watch how people process it. But even as a little kid you can feel empowered to think reusable not disposable, and influence your family and friends. It’s a powerful feeling to set a positive example.