Artist Calder Kamin Envisions "A World Without Waste"
With animals crafted from plastic bags, the Austin native turns our eyes to nature
Calder Kamin would like you to mail her your old plastic bags. The creative reuse crusader, known for turning trash into art, crochets the darnedest critters out of plastic yarn. Her intricate animal sculptures are entirely made up of discarded doodads, from pen caps and game pieces to pelts made of "plarn."
In "A World Without Waste," her solo show at Ivester Contemporary, Kamin presents 11 works – an assortment of canids along with a family of foxes – and a Superartificial wilderness installed on the gallery floor. Her bright menagerie of colorful creatures have similarly sing-song titles: Marigold Mongrel, Plant Puppy, and Wildflower Wolf. (Her affinity for alliteration comes from having her own catchy name.)
But beneath the playfulness lurks something serious: Is our planet becoming its own plastic pelt? I had a chance to speak with Kamin about "A World Without Waste" and the various hats she wears as artist, activist, and now, amenity. The 36-year-old Austin native is currently artist-in-residence at a multifamily apartment complex in Ft. Worth. (This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
Austin Chronicle: You describe yourself as an artist, educator, and advocate. Which role do you most identify with?
Calder Kamin: I am an artist overall. We view the world differently and see the potential in things when others don't. There is a long legacy of artists using found objects and garbage to create their work. I've always loved Ruth Asawa's ingenuity; she's known for her hanging wire sculptures, but I had no idea she was the mother of creative reuse centers in San Francisco! When her children were school age, she started an art program and asked the parents to donate materials. She worked with several other artists in the Bay Area to make it official. They're all over the U.S. now, and that's Asawa's legacy. Austin Creative Reuse is a beacon for me. I joined their board in May 2020, to be an advocate for the potential in these materials, and ourselves – to figure out this challenging future ahead of us. It's not just for artists with a capital "A"; there are so many brilliant makers in Austin, and I want them to have a platform through ACR.
AC: You make all kinds of critters: Do you have a favorite?
CK: Dogs – canids – are my favorite to sculpt. They're omnivorous, and because they eat our garbage, that's how the whole relationship between human and wolf started.
AC: Speaking of which, is your pooch Pixel more of a model or a muse?
CK: She's a good friend. [laughs] She's been to every exhibition install with me. When I had the exhibition at DoSeum in San Antonio, she was there with me until 2am every night. Pixel and I just ran around the children's museum by ourselves – but she's not interested in the art at all!
AC: You're Austin-based but currently living in Ft. Worth?
CK: Yes, I'm here until October. It was a total lark, I was scrolling through Instagram, following the hashtag #CallForArtists, and a notification popped up for American Landmark Apartments. They were looking for an artist-in-residence; a week later, I got a phone call for their Shelby at Northside property in Ft. Worth. They've given me a large studio – it was a former utility closet – and an apartment as well. In exchange for this space, I provide activities for the residents. I'm technically advertised as an amenity. There's a gym, a pool, and now, an artist. I still have my position at UT as a career counselor. When I graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute in 2009, I knew I wanted to help artists as my day job. I grew up in Austin; the first place I sold my art was in the fifth grade at Yard Dog Art Gallery. They asked me to make little animals and Elvises out of Sculpy [polymer clay]. This was when Chuy's was still local and the whole block on South Congress celebrated Elvis' birthday. I didn't know much about him, other than he had big hair, wore rhinestone jackets, and liked donuts – so I made these little busts of fat Elvises.
AC: When did you start working with garbage as a medium?
CK: While living in Kansas City, I took up birding, and the most interesting behavior I witnessed was a nest made out of trash. To build architecture for the next generation, I thought, I need to be more like a bird! That was around 2013. Then I moved back to Austin in 2014, and there was the citywide ban on plastic bags, which I was very proud of, but it made my material scarce. That's when this process of collecting and educating the public really grew. People from all over the U.S., former college friends, and Instagram followers started mailing me their garbage.
AC: Your animals are so clever and cute! How do you strike the balance between adorableness and urgency?
CK: I talk to kids like they're adults. The DoSeum asked me to build a world about the future, so I created a time machine. You walked though a spiral entrance, into a landfill world with cockroaches everywhere. There was a raccoon trapped in a fridge, and a seagull choking on plastic – and a vulture watching the seagull. The next world was a forest where something terrible had happened; a baby fawn stood in the middle. There are no humans in my world: The movement to save the planet is to save the humans! We continue to transform and adapt, but we need to be more like nature.
AC: Are your pieces always so colorful?
KC: I held a workshop at Women & Their Work in 2016, during my "Plastic Planet" show, and a little girl came up to me and said, "If your work is about fake nature, your animals could be whatever colors you want." So now I have these creatures that are full rainbow. Back then, I was only using plastic bags, but I started exploring new materials in 2019. Creative reuse centers have issues with getting people to use the really weird stuff – I'm the spokesperson for that! Koozies are one of my most coveted materials. All I'm using is a crochet needle, a hot glue gun, and wire clippers. Making this kind of work is definitely my inner child having a ball. My programming is for all ages, but the reason there's a large focus on kids is that we've left a massive mess for them.
AC: So, what exactly is plarn?
CK: Plastic bag yarn. My orange bags comes from a client in Omaha. My blue bags are New York Times sleeves. I use fruit bags, grocery bags, and newspaper sleeves and roll them up like a burrito to cut strips – full circles – and lace the circles into each other to make links for my yarn. Some folks have built more intricate contraptions, to create one smooth continuous line, but mine are a little chunkier and fluffier. The crocheted plarn goes over a foam mold; for the most part, I just find taxidermy forms on eBay. But the Floral Fox Kits in this show, for instance, are just a bunch of wire and foam and duct tape.
AC: How long does it take to make each animal?
CK: It's months of preparation for all the components, starting with collecting the materials. I'm someone with busy hands, whether I'm in the studio or not, so I'm always making something. I carry around a purse containing plarn everywhere I go. My studio has tons of bins for crocheted stuff, plastic flowers, cut marker caps, and little teeny tiny things. I made a 17-foot whale for the Austin Public Library and it took me two years – I had to wait for the ban to lift on plastic bags. My co-workers who commuted from Kyle or Manor would stuff my desk drawer with them.
AC: What is the main message of "A World Without Waste"?
KC: Nature will continue to flourish, with or without us.
Hold That Tiger
Calder Kamin isn't the only member of her family who's had an artistic connection to animals. Her grandfather, Jesse Ernest Caesar – to whom she's dedicated her solo exhibition "A World Without Waste" – was intimately involved with a tiger: the Exxon tiger. Well, it was originally the Esso tiger, as the cartoon cat came into being a decade before the oil company rebranded itself with the "xx"s, but Caesar was there at its birth. He was lead art director for the Houston office of legendary ad agency McCann Erickson (frequently dissed in Mad Men), which was developing a new campaign for Esso in 1964. "Put a tiger in your tank" was the slogan, and Caesar and his team came up with a tiger that said "power": a big barrel-chested bodybuilder of a cat with thick arms and an irrepressible grin. It instantly caught the public imagination and remained Exxon's corporate spokescat for decades.
(Caesar was also at McCann in 1975, when the Houston Astros needed a new look. While he didn't come up with the horizontal rainbow stripes himself – that was a young graphic designer named Jack Amuny – he led the design team for the uniform that caused a lot of controversy. That, however, is another story – but a good one.)
As Kamin was preparing to open "A World Without Waste," her grandfather passed away. The Chronicle offers our condolences. – Robert Faires
“A World Without Waste” is on view July 2-Aug. 7 at Ivester Contemporary, 916 Springdale #107. For more information, visit ivestercontemporary.com.