Calder Kamin crafts cute animals — and eco messages — from plastic bags

Oct 12, 2016
The Austin artist creates critters that are undeniably cute yet symbolize important ecological issues. Jeanne Claire van Ryzin/American-Statesman

Calder Kamin takes a break while putting the final touches on “Plastic Planet,” her solo exhibit at Women and Their Work.

“I’m a mission-driven artist,” she says on a recent afternoon, surveying her colorful animal sculptures that are crafted from plastic bags. “I aim to educate with my art, to motivate people to be more ecology-minded.”

Then she smiles and sighs, her tiny dog Pixel scurrying around the gallery.

“But, you know — all I really want to do is make cute animals.”

Kamin’s critters are undeniably cute, the paint-by-numbers patterns along with the palette of bright, unnatural colors only accentuating the menagerie’s cartoonish artificiality.

A smiling, radiant orange fox stands on a poofy mound of bright green grass dotted with flowers. Another smiling fox — just the bust of a fox, actually — perches on a tree stump. A portly raccoon scurries up the wall, in its paw a plastic bag printed with “Thank you: Have a nice day.”

Kamin uses hundreds of plastic bags to craft each critter, twisting strands into tiny loops that she then glues to taxidermy forms. She crochets plastic strands to make sprays of leaves and puffy flowers with stems made of plastic straws.

“Plastic is everywhere — littering the land, forming huge gyres in the ocean,” says Kamin, who studied at the Kansas City Art Institute.

Plastic bags are everywhere but Austin these days, that is. Since the city passed its ordinance against the use of plastic bags, Kamin has extended her art-making material sourcing beyond the city limits. She’ll track down a particular retailer for a particular color of bag. And friends, relatives and even social media contacts in other cities send her bags.

Anything for the cute.

“If I can attract people with the cute factor of these animals, maybe I can get people to think a little harder about the harm plastic causes in the environment,” she says.

For her show at Women and Their Work — only her second solo exhibit in Austin — Kamin staged other enticements, too.

The “Neocortex Classroom” occupies about a third of the gallery. It’s part installation but also a functioning art activity zone stocked with supplies and materials for ecologycentric creations.

A pair of old desks from Eanes Elementary School, which Kamin attended as a child, face a chalkboard. Nearby tables are filled with art-making supplies, and the walls are covered with an outline of the Great Pacific garbage gyre and a monthly recycling projects calendar among other educational posters.

Kamin even provided her classroom with a pet: mealworms. Last year Stanford University researchers discovered that the ordinary mealworm can safely eat and digest plastic foam, transforming it into biodegradable waste. A terrarium hosts a colony of the squiggly squirmers munching along on plastic foam cups.

Kamin’s “Neocortex Classroom” is a valentine of sorts to the lessons about ecology, recycling and the environment that she fondly remembers as a vital part of her early education.

“I grew up a ’90s kid, learning about recycling and ecology at school — it was such an important topic,” she says.

Kamin, 31, suggests that with the emphasis nowadays on technology-related subjects, the environmental sciences have been sidelined in many curricula.

Any visitor can take part in making art in Kamin’s classroom. She’s also planned a series of free ecocentric programs that start Oct. 15. There’s a workshop to make biologically appropriate dog food, a celebration of Austin’s salamanders and a workshop on how to make your backyard more bird-friendly, including Kamin’s own cleverly designed strike-deterrent window decals.

“What can I do to inspire the next generation to become stewards of nature and of the animals we all love?” Kamin says. “That’s really what motivates me artistically.”