Plastic fantastic: the art created from other people's careless waste left on Lowestoft beach
PUBLISHED: 09:34 15 August 2019 | UPDATED: 13:27 16 August 2019
Jamie Honeywood Archant Norwich Norfolk
From fine art to fingerless gloves, Barbara Streisand to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' knees, polar bears and community art to Lowestoft and beach rubbish - it's been quite a journey for artist Clare Johnson.
Plastic fantastic: the art created from other people's careless waste left on Lowestoft
One person's trash is another's treasure, and for artist Clare Johnson, the plastic she collects on Lowestoft beach is being turned into something fantastic.
Clare collects the plastic she finds on her daily walks along the beach and transforms the rubbish into colourful collages which showcase the unusual and everyday items left behind by beach visitors or washed up along the shoreline.
She has found mechanisms from Met Office weather balloons, drinks bottles from far-off places ("or Lidl," she laughs), children's plastic toys, sweet packets, dog toys, fast food containers, shoes, clothing, drinking straws, string, netting and lots and lots of buckets, spades and ice cream spoons.
Each haul is brought back to her nearby studio on the north side of Lowestoft docks, arranged and catalogued: and the results are extraordinary colour spectrums, rainbows of rubbish, pictures in plastic. The horror of the plastic mountain which is left or washes up on the golden sand of Lowestoft is curated into something strangely beautiful.
"I love colour so it was natural for me to find something interesting and then think about how I could use it in a piece of art," said Clare, "each of the collages is what I find in one beach trip.
"I've found so many strange things and it's quite frightening to see how the plastic doesn't degrade. I've found a perfectly serviceable four-litre milk bottle with a use-by-date of 2003 and baby wipes that are in perfect condition."
The salvaged wipes were recently used in an art installation which Clare presented from a beach hut at Lowestoft's First Light Festival which celebrated midsummer: she made a curtain of the wipes which illustrated just how robust they remain, months or years after they were discarded. There were bottle top collages and sculptural tangles of seaweed, fishing wire and netting.
"People were fascinated to see the rubbish and also horrified," she said, "a group of teenagers came to see me and talked so eloquently about the problems of plastic on the beach and in the sea like a trio of Greta Thunbergs. It was great to see that people are engaged about the issue and want to do something."
Clare, who studied Fine Art, has enjoyed a wonderfully varied career.
"I became a knitwear designer by accident after I left college in 1978," she laughed, "I was in a sculpture studio and it was cold because the door was always open so I knitted myself some fingerless gloves. They were a bit punky - glittery and made of mohair - so people noticed them and asked me to make them some, too."
Performer Barbara Streisand became a customer, owning six of Clare's jumpers (one she wore in feature film The Prince of Tides), and other high-profile clients followed, including The Graduate's Mrs Robinson, Katherine Ross and actress Candice Bergen. When she shared a shop in Highgate with a jeweller, one day a customer came in conversation, the pair talked about costume design.
The customer worked at puppeteer Jim Henson's Creature Shop in Hampstead and offered Clare a job: her first task was to work on the knees of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, complicated body suits which were so heavy that each cast member needed multiple suits to combat overheating and sweating.
Each costume created by the team was divided into 15 pieces and the faces were controlled by motorised cables which were located in the turtles' shells. The Creature Shop had been created as a partnership with British illustrator Brian Froud to bring The Dark Crystal film to life - it was also used for films such as Labyrinth and The Storyteller.
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"I never met Jim but I did stay in his house," said Clare, "one night it had snowed so much that I couldn't get home and a chap who was staying at Henson's house said that I could stay there, so I slept on his sofa! I just remember it was a very nice house. Posh!"
After Jim Henson's death and the relocation of the studio, Clare went to work at Pinewood Studios where her job was to help make…polar bears. It was a job which bizarrely links to her recent project for First Light: "sewing polar bear fur is very similar to sewing baby wipes!"
Multi-media artist Clare has also worked in a range of community-based arts projects and moved to Lowestoft in 2003 with her partner, Orson. Her work has been commissioned by Norfolk Tourism Board and The National Theatre and she has prints in the V&A collection and has won prizes at Eastern Open.
Her current work with plastic beach rubbish may, she says, evolve into an even bigger project than it is today. And she intends to keep up her walks and litter-picking, recycling as much of the rubbish she collects as possible, washing clothing which is serviceable and passing it on to charity.
But has she ever found real treasure on the beach while out on her walks? "I found a £10 note once," she laughs, "and I have been reminded that my oddest find was a knuckleduster!"
* Take a look at Ms Johnson's Instagram account at www.instagram.com/itsclarejohnson and visit her website at www.clarejohnson.co.uk.