What kind of artist did you dream of becoming when you started your fine arts career?

Beginning my career as an artist I always imagined myself to have a career as a painter, this lasted for seventeen years till I discovered plastics washing up on our beaches and the work became focussed on environmental issues. The initial exhibitions after graduating from the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne in 1979, were based on painting, I was mainly focussed on working in that area and using those materials.

Over twelve years later, following numerous exhibitions in Melbourne and Western Australia where I also lived for six years in Fremantle, after moving to Northern New South Wales in 1992, I then moved with my partner into a beautiful home in Byron Bay. It had lime-washed ceilings and walls. This fascinated me because it reminded me of the driftwood that I used to collect and work with when I was in art school. And I thought, ‘I want to go back and collect driftwood from those remote beaches of southern New South Wales and Eastern Victoria’. So I went back for a few weeks, and that’s when I noticed these plastics washing up. These weren’t there fifteen years prior to that time when I began collecting driftwood. I became really fascinated by these plastics. Suddenly, I felt that I had this enormous meaning that I could express in my art, a social conscience, an environmental aspect, and still with a commitment to create objects of beauty. I put my brushes down and didn’t paint again for close to fifteen years.
It could be interpreted that working in the environmental art space means that one uses more abstract notions than when working with simple paint on canvas, however it is not really the case. It’s quite a contradiction because one might think that by working with found plastic objects, the result would be more abstract, however also these plastic objects can actually be very figurative themselves. Bottle tops, little plastic soldiers found on the beach. Tons of little objects – they’re all things that, when kids see these artworks, they run up to them to look at a little spoon or a little Barbie doll in one of the sculptures, and they find it really fascinating. There is a figurative element there, even though I make them in a semi-abstract way.

How did you become an environmental artist? Was it an ethical or aesthetic decision?

It was both, however I believe it was initially aesthetic considerations and ethical considerations became more prominent the more I understood the issue of ocean plastic litter. I started collecting driftwood when I was at the Victorian College of the Arts, during a time when not many plastics were washing up on beaches. You had lots of things washing up, but those days it was manly driftwood and I just wanted to make furniture and different sculptural forms and things for the place where I was living in Melbourne at the time.

Seventeen years later, I moved into a beautiful house that had a lime washed ceiling and walls, which reminded me very much of the driftwood look and I said to my partner, “I think I would like to make driftwood furniture for this whole house, beds, couches, dining table, chairs everything.” and continued, “But we have to go right down to the Southern part of New South Wales, where it meets Victoria and do some four wheel drive trekking and climb down Cliff faces. She was instantly excited about the idea.

Going out to these beaches that I sourced driftwood off many years ago, I noticed that there were a lot of plastics. During that time; which was around 1996, I collected about eighty big jumbo garbage bags, full of plastics and originally I was going to take them to the local tip for recycling, but then I found myself getting more intrigued by the colours and shapes and by the items themselves. I started to see that it all could potentially become artworks, I didn’t know how, I never did it previously and had to picture it, as I had never done it before and that’s what really happened, beginning with furniture to plastic assemblages.

Over the next few months I did make the driftwood furniture. Then I tipped all the plastic garbage onto my studio floor and saw that there was a potential palette. I put the reds in one corner, the blues in the corner, the pinks in the corner, the yellows in another corner and then the blacks and so on. Realising that I actually had a palette, so many artistic sensibilities started emerging and ideas of working with it, how to actually go about and create something aesthetically beautiful out of it all.”

How are your work and message conditioned by the fact that the raw material you use is waste / plastic found in Australian beaches?

As part of my work process includes the raw plastic material, my work as a result, is largely created from these items. As a result, the environmental message is largely conditioned by the fact that the raw material I use is ocean litter plastic found on Australian beaches. Further to this, I even have favourite spots in Byron Bay where I collect, including the main beach in Byron and nearby Brays Beach near Broken Head and up in the corner of Seven Mile Beach towards Lennox Head. I’ll walk up and down these beaches, collecting plastics in the morning or afternoon.
What I’m finding is that now a lot of people pick up plastics everywhere. They take a bag with them and it becomes a daily chore. It’s become a common thing. I think it’s great. In the early days when I was doing this twenty years ago or so, there wasn’t so much community collecting activity like that. I was collecting huge pieces of plastic that I found. Now, I’m largely collecting really small pieces of plastic. The current works that I’m working on is a series called the “Pacific Garbage Patch” series, using these really small pieces of plastic to create the image of the Garbage Patch.

The Garbage Patch series is based on the 2018 to 2019 mapping of the Garbage Patch that exists in the centre of the Pacific Ocean. People have asked me, ‘Is this the map of Australia?’ I remind them it’s actually not; it’s the current map of the Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch. Next year it will be different. It’s going to keep changing and it will probably get bigger. It used to be tiny. Five years ago, it was the size of Texas. Now it’s more than double that and my work will continue to develop and reflect these changes.

Most conventional artists feel love for the raw materials they use – marble, mud, steel, stone. It must feel strange creating something out of a material you probably dislike. What is your relationship with those elements that end up becoming an artwork?

Although these plastics are generally seen as ugly or as trash when seen littering the shores of the worlds beaches, I see something different. I see the potential for art. I am aware there is a universal consciousness of these issues about our beaches being polluted by plastics but at the same time, I’m just hoping that with enough of this type of approach of seeing a potential for beauty in these plastics being transformed into artworks – where people are not being hammered with negativity about the environment – that they become inspired by being exposed to something where there’s a possibility of renewal.
There’s always that possibility of turning something into the positive. Just like collecting rubbish on beaches, you can do something positive, and it can be beautiful as well. If that message gets across by my making the artwork I do, it can only be a good thing. In truth I see something unique in all the plastics that I collect and include in my art, thus on some level I don’t necessarily dislike these plastics.

How have you changed as an artist since the first exhibition where you presented artwork made out of recycled material? 

In my first assemblage works titled “Contemporary Landscapes” made from beach found plastics behind Perspex, created over twenty years ago in the past, dating back to 1998 and 1999, I used recycled materials to convey the history and memory of a place, to comment on the human experience of place, beauty and degradation of the environment. There was close attention to the sense of aesthetics in these works. As a more evolved artist having worked in the environmental art field for over twenty years now, these elements have deepened and become if anything, more sophisticated, through both my studio based work and my own research as a practicing visual artist over this time.

What was your motivation then? Is it still the same today? 

I had a self-held commitment as an artist to express contemporary social and environmental concerns then as I do now. This has grown naturally for me as an artist in my development of working with this found object visual language and is supplemented in parallel, with myself as a person having a natural response to world wide ever growing concerns about all aspects of the environment, which now includes the ever pressing need to address global warming and its impact on the environment.

Are exhibitions the main way for you to create awareness about environmental problems?

Exhibitions provide a platform for me to create awareness about environmental problems. I am able to use these exhibition opportunities to reveal how I have actively harvested from ‘nature’ the many- times-removed products of human manufacture: the raw material extracted from the earth, processed into commodity, used, discarded, and returned by the tide to human use.

The objects yielded by the tide prompted a key question for me: how does one give form to the formlessness of detritus? I was well aware that the organising principles and my choices would determine the meaning of any work created. I began by sorting the found objects into material, natural or manufactured, then into colour and size, his process a self-reflexive examination of categorization. These categories suggested particular works: totem poles constructed from buoys or thongs, wall-based collages of driftwood, and, eventually, coloured plastics assembled into abstract fields that came to evoke landscapes. 

Unlike most environmental artists, I make my work not from conventionally ‘natural’ materials — soil, grass, stones, for instance — but rather from the ‘artificial’ materials that nature has reclaimed and sculpted through erosion. The work that I make and exhibit, actively mobilises the unstable boundaries between what is human-made and what is natural.
These works that I show in exhibitions not only transform rubbish into objects of value, raising questions about the assignation of cultural worth. They also compel the viewer to make links between the cycles of production and use of everyday functional objects, and those of art. What distinguishes a piece of plastic ground to crystal-like translucency by time and water, from a work of art?

Can this art that I show in exhibitions shift our thinking on matters of sustainability, or is it complicit in the exploitation of the earth’s resources for human consumption?

Do you think that art can be effective as an environmental education tool and does your initiative impact other people and the environment?

I see that by making this art, it is a way of sharing my messages for the need to care for our environment with a broad audience. I feel that even if just a fraction of the viewing audience were to experience a shift in their awareness and consciousness about the environment and art, through being exposed to this artwork then it would be worth it. This stems from the fact that I believe presently humanity is at a critical point in time, with our planet currently existing in a fragile ecological state, with global warming hastening unheard of changes, all amplifying the fact that we need all the help we can get. This is my way of making a difference, and at the same time I’m sharing a positive message about beauty that can be gained from the aesthetic experience of appreciating art, as well as giving examples of how we can recycle and reuse in creative ways.

These artworks exemplify my commitment as an artist to express contemporary social and environmental concerns. By presenting this art to the public, it will hopefully have people thinking about the deeper meaning of the work, in particular the environmental issues we currently face. I hope these works will act as a constant reminder to people about awareness. I would like them to find enjoyment of the work on many levels and find themselves becoming identified in various ways with each of the artworks they see. I also look forward to the possible discussion that these works may generate.

I say these things as being possibilities, bearing in mind as well, that comments are regularly made to me about people’s consciousness, while walking the beach, being awakened after seeing my found plastic object artworks, similarly with seeing my recycled plastic bag series, people have marvelled at the creative way I am presenting the recycling theme in an aesthetic way, with this in mind, I have trusted leaving the final alchemy of the work to the viewer, with the possibility they may experience deep perceptual shifts and have a positive aesthetic experience as they interact with my art.

Today, the environmental concern seems to have finally reached all sociocultural levels. Do you believe that preservation and recycling policies are sufficiently effective?

I believe that we have a long way to go to get big business and the governments of this world to treat the current environmental concerns with the imperatives that they deserve and that are essential. I also believe that the re-education of our species is beginning to happen in a positive way and that change is afoot, however it will only reach the levels needed when it becomes economically viable for big business and the governments of this world to take action, but it will get to that point I believe. In the mean time it is up to us individually to bring about change on a personal level by being concious individuals. This will continue to bringt about the necessary changes.

For around twenty years, you have been creating artwork committed to an environmental message. How has that message evolved?

When I first began working with found objects, I became fascinated by these plastics, and for me it was at first like an epiphany. Suddenly, I felt that I had this enormous meaning that I could express in my art, which included a social conscience, an environmental aspect, and still with a commitment to create objects of beauty. Over the years that followed, I deepened my concern for the environment and researched the extent of the issue as best I could. This helped me to develop a variety of visual art practices including sculpture, installation, assemblage, prints and a return after many years, to painting.

In more recent years it’s really developed into a three-fold concern in my work for me. It comes back to the thesis I did during my PhD, titled Environmental Art: Aesthetics, Activism, and Transformation. Aesthetics is all about beauty. Activism is about the environmental component and making a statement. And transformation is that which becomes possible when people really allow themselves to enter into the work. That’s the something of ‘beyond,’ and that’s something that I hope people get the opportunity to experience with this artwork.

Considering that the planet’s situation has worsened, have you been hardening your message?

I’m too much of an eternal optimist to become hardened.

Does your work also serve as a thermometer to measure how marine waste has evolved on beaches?

How have you lived that process? 

Yes I can explain my own journey clearly with how I see a kind of thermometer I have discovered to measure how marine waste has evolved on beaches. I have lived that process by noticing a few things develop over the years. I’m working on large scale paintings at the moment and when I say painting, I’m basically painting with very small micro pieces of plastic that I’ve been collecting off the beaches.

My process is to mix the micro plastics with ecologically sustainable plant based resin. It’s a clear resin and I’m actually painting those plastics onto stretched Belgian linen, into the shape of the Garbage Patch in the Pacific Ocean, or as abstract details of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or detail of beaches when I see these plastics on the beaches. It’s a meeting of my painting that I did for so many years and my assemblage work. I love the aesthetics of it, I love the fact that it’s so contemporary in the sense that when I walk on the beaches, that’s all I see on it these days – the small pieces of plastic, because everybody else picks up the bigger pieces, but not many are noticing or picking up the smaller pieces.

It’s really interesting for me that I’m still kind of doing this after twenty five years or whatever it is, because back in the early days when I first started collecting beach plastics, I was collecting really large pieces of plastic because not many people then were really collecting it – very few people were collecting it off the beaches. It was just a phenomenon that took humanity by storm especially during the last ten years or so.

What do you want the public to see and feel when they look at your artwork?

I hope viewers get a sense of both beauty and an increased awareness with everything from the work I’m producing. Making this art is a way of sharing my messages about the need to care for our environment and about the aesthetic experience of appreciating artworks. I believe humanity is at a critical point, with the planet in a fragile ecological state and global warming hastening major changes.

I hope people enjoy my work on many levels and can identify with each piece in various ways. I also hope the viewing public can embrace messages in other artists’ work, particularly when they express strong environmental and social statements intelligently and with a high degree of aesthetic complexity.

And to finish, what would be your advice to all those people that will be watching this story?

What do you think we should do or stop doing to prevent endangering our environment? What is your message to the world?

Basically engage in being as individually conscious as possible. No one is going to do that for you. This begins with the most simple of things, like being kind to yourself, being kind to others and being kind to our beautiful planet. How could you dispose of waste in a careless manner if you are being conscious?

John Dahlsen October 2019