September 29, 2009

Fun With Squished Up Dinosaurs

An interview with sculptor and designer David Edgar

Part 2 of 2 (link to Part 1)
Click on any picture to enlarge to original size.

David, what was your main objective in terms of moving to working with plastics and away from working with steel?
It wasn’t really an objective; it was an acceptance. When I say that I “interrupted 30 years of working in steel” – well, that’s not something that I just did with a snap of my fingers. For example, when we moved to Charlotte for the job at UNCC, I spent something like $1,500 just to upgrade the electrical wiring so I could move my welding equipment into our two-car garage. That’s just not something you do on a whim and then set off to the side.

It was during this same period when we had just moved to North Carolina that I had a totally unanticipated experience. The story goes that our neighbors’ in Charlotte were extremely friendly and very welcoming, so they invited us to watch a
Carolina Panther’s game on television. In fact, it was a Super Bowl party, where the Panthers had made it all the way to the ‘big game’ (ZN: which they lost on a last second field goal, sob!!). But my wife and I didn’t have as yet any appropriate team logo tee-shirts or hats to show our team-spirit, so we were wondering what to do.

However, I did notice that I had this blue plastic bottle that was the color of the Panthers’ uniforms. So using that – and a plastic rotisserie chicken tray, you know like you get from the cooked chicken in grocery stores or at the deli – along with other miscellaneous stuff, including from a white bleach bottle, I made this Carolina Panthers’ mascot mask. It wasn’t very much – but it was a huge hit at the party! And somehow the whole experience really resonated with me. (ZN: sorry about not showing the picture of same, but the NFL gets really fussy about their teams’ trademarks! Fortunately, though, we were able to find a Super Hero willing to loan us his headgear...)

Afterwards, I began looking for other things I could make. In fact, I even found myself creating while my wife and I were taking our two-mile walk every morning, weather permitting. You see, in our neighborhood in Charlotte, the people are pretty conscientious recyclers. So on Tuesday mornings while we’re out on our walk, we always see these red recycling bins sitting out on the curb waiting to be picked up by the city collection service. And I’d find myself saying, “Wow, that’s an interesting color” or “look at this neat shape.” I started with the mask without any plan – I had done it on a lark, you know, just sort of having fun – but yet I was really inspired to do more.

I’ll admit though that at first, I figured I was in denial. I thought I was trying to hide from my ‘formal’ studio work in welding, like somehow I wasn’t doing or confronting what I really needed to be doing. Still, I decided that I would just keep doing this for a while. And really then the fish thing just sort of emerged from the shapes and the colors of the pieces I was finding, as well as from my experiences growing up in Florida.

After a little while working on this, I saw an advertisement for an exhibition at the Fuller Crafts Museum called ‘Trashformations’. This was being curated by Lloyd E. Herman – who has in fact generously provided us with an essay that is included in our new book (which is due for release in November 2009). Lloyd is the founding director of the Renwick Gallery, which is the American Craft Museum and part of the Smithsonian Institution. It was therefore an attractive exhibition to be involved with and I thought what the heck do I have to lose? So I sent in my five slides. About four months later I got this letter back that said: “We like your work, we want to put all 5 pieces in the show. But can you do 2 more, because we want to do an installation of seven of your pieces for the exhibit?’

That’s when I thought, “Okay, there must really be something to this.” It was a matter then for me to accept that my work didn’t always have to be about angst and intensity and be deep and academic and always about intellectual issues. Don’t get me wrong: I think my work with the ‘Plastiquarium’ has some of that stuff, in part because of the environmental aspects of it. But initially, what’s important to me is that it just makes people smile! And I love artwork that just makes people smile!

You know, Ziggy, when I was at the
Southern Highland Craft Guild show where we met, it was just a great experience. People would come around the corner where I was and they’d look back at my display and do a double-take. They’d say, “You’re doing that with detergent bottles! What a neat thing!” I’d get all these big smiles and whole families would stop and look.

Also, I really think that my efforts with metal have ultimately come to support what I’m doing now. It’s surprising to me how similar both materials can be. They both have a sort of malleable quality: you can shear them, you can fasten them with mechanical fasteners. You can actually weld plastic if you want to, with hot-air welding equipment. And there’s so much to explore, I haven’t even had a chance to try all my ideas.

What kind of other ideas do you think you want to explore? For example, do you look to include such effects as could be achieved with glass or even including other parts, even electrical additions?
Thus far, I have limited my ‘welding’ and shaping of the plastic to the use of a heat gun. It's just a matter of time before I get around to experimenting with alternative heat sources like an oven. In terms of attachments right now, almost exclusively I make my attachments with machine screws, pop rivets or staples. Other attachments are achieved with a locking tab-and-slot technique. I avoid glue as much as possible as it is unreliable with most plastics.

In terms of effects as you might get with glass, well I do use scrap bits of different plastic as filler for bubble belly elements in some larger fish and larger scrap as filler for clear bodied projects like ‘Rainbow Snuggeel’ (see Part 1) or as with ‘Freddy’, shown here. I haven’t tried to heat fuse these elements as yet, as you might do with glass ‘frit’. On the other hand, I have made pieces that include electrical parts. For example, if you look through the ‘Plastiquarium’ gallery, you see that my jellyfish lamps do have lights in them. Some projects also have moving parts like mouths that open and close as well as moveable, segmented body parts, again like with the serpent.

If you’re interested, I recently added a
FAQ section to my web-site that addresses some of these sorts of questions.

I did see firsthand how the public was very attracted and even drawn to your work. Has the acceptance been equally as good in either the academic world or other artistic circles in which you are involved?
One thing I do notice is that a lot of people have a pretty basic attitude towards plastic, namely, that it’s 100% artificial. It’s fake stuff. Well, sorry, but I look at it as plastic is made from oil, a naturally occurring earth element. It’s a refined resource, just as much as steel is. These are discussions I have more perhaps with the ‘craft world’. Craft people will often see craft as only being made from one of five elements: metal, ceramic, glass, fiber or wood.

But with the exception of fiber and wood, these are all refined earth elements! So sometimes I say, “What?” Because people will say craft shouldn’t include a refining process or be made with refined materials but there’s still a contradiction. I think that’s another target I have with the book, namely to increase the acceptance of working with plastic and making this art form somewhat more mainstream.

David, again looking at your statement about having ‘interrupted’ your work in steel. Does this imply a plan to go back to this medium in the future?
Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t given up on steel. I can’t bring myself to sell my
TIG-welder. Again, my studio is in our two-car garage. And in a space like this, it’s just fact: you can’t do both. Well, I guess you could do 6 months of one, clear the whole place out and clean like crazy, then do 6 months of the other. (laughs)

Over the years what I’ve found is that – well, obviously steel work is to some degree dangerous. It’s very noisy, dirty and even a bit hazardous. It’s very time-consuming compared to the work I’m doing now and shipping is a nightmare. Plus, it’s also pretty easy to see that there’s a lot of people out there doing very good constructivist metal work. One thing I’ve found in my career is that it is hard to differentiate myself in this field among so many other talented artists.

But this work in plastic, well there’s no problem differentiating myself from anybody else. At least for a person who’s doing it like I am. I mean, we actually have a gallery of other people working with recycled plastic featured in our book. And I think we had 300 submissions from artists working in recycled plastics. That’s a pretty broad discipline then. But if I was looking for artists working in detergent bottles, you know, post-consumer product containers – well, the field would be even much smaller.

Why have you worked so much with fish designs? And what came first: the designs or the focus on environmental issues?
Well, to your first question, I’ve worked with fish designs mostly because I think if you’re wise, you’re going to play to your strengths. And getting back to influences, certainly my interest in marine life comes from growing up in Florida, where I did my share of snorkeling and scuba diving. Living close to the ocean, you know, in a marine environment has really helped shape how a lot of these forms have crept into my consciousness.

But really, with ‘Plastiquarium’ and especially the fish, that just kind of happened. The first things I made were the masks; the next things were the fish, which came initially from the shapes of the bottles and the colors. It was just a kind of natural progression. What I also found as I went along was that I could make all kinds of ‘fantasy’ fish – which would still look like fish to people. Sure, I’ve had people say ‘could you make a grouper or make a trout’ but I’ve said, no, I’m not going to do that. The ‘Plastiquarium’ pieces are for me purely fantasy concepts. But again because fish are not from our everyday world, people don’t have a problem with that.

The content part – that is, the message about the impact these materials have on our environment – really started to become a very strong context in my mind a little later on. I mean have you heard about the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone? This is literally a massive, floating island of garbage out in the Pacific that people think could be twice the size of Texas! What a catastrophe!

I mean, it really hit me when I read I think in Sierra magazine about a dead albatross they had found, whose stomach was completely filled with all kinds of plastic materials – including lighters, pieces of toothbrushes and more. But the problem was, it couldn’t digest any of this and pass it through it’s system. So this bird had literally starved to death with a full stomach! And there’s all kinds of examples like this, where they’ve found even sick, dying or deceased whales with hundreds of pounds of plastic in their stomachs. So I find myself returning to the environmental aspects time and time again. I just think this is a very important issue that we can’t continue to ignore. We also include information about this in our book.

Where do you think man’s often careless use of plastics is leading us?
I have sort of this concept, if you will: if oil is really squashed up dinosaurs, would it not be possible for this material to reanimate itself somehow? I have some works that I call ‘Plastizoic’: they’re designs that are coming from a future fossil epoch. I mean, imagine if we jump 10 million years in the future from now, what would 5 million year old fossils look like at that point? I think that it’s entirely possible that the pollutants that are being spread by these containers and these materials are giving rise to a new evolution, owing to genetic mutations and so forth.

My theory is based on the fact that we mimic our parents genetically. Is it therefore feasible to think that there will be mutated creatures that eventually mimic the containers that spread pollution? That life-forms will emerge because they have essentially ‘learned’ through evolution to survive and even thrive in this polluted environment? Weird thoughts, yes, but look: we’re taking oil from sedimentary layers deep in the Earth and bringing it up to the surface. We’re turn it into all these other ‘refined’ things for other purposes. And then we’re creating new sedimentary layers when we in turn discard these items. So in the future, who knows what’s going to happen with that stuff?

David, why you are so willing to go public with workshops and even a pending book about how you make your art. Aren’t you the least bit afraid of being ‘knocked off’ by others?
When I first started doing this, I wondered if it would be possible to protect it. You know, protect my intellectual property and somehow keep other people from imitating it. And I thought about that and I wrestled with it as a concept for a while. Ultimately, though, it boiled down to the fact that you can’t protect it. If somebody wants to pick up detergent bottles and make art out of it, I can’t say, “Oh no, sorry! Stop that, I did that first! That’s my construct!” That just wouldn’t go anywhere.

Instead – and as maybe is the case with other artists – I realized that I am interested in having a small footnote in the continuum of art history in some way. So by doing the book and by doing workshops in this art form, I’m trying to solidify my position in the ‘genesis’ of the discipline. I want to assure my role as being a person in the forefront of this type of art. Because I do think it’s going to become more and more prolific.

In terms of the workshops: one of the beauties of this aspect is that at least a third of the registrants for my workshops are public school teachers. I think they all see this as a perfect solution for them in large part because it uses free materials. Furthermore, it gets as it were the ‘future generation’ interested as well.

I’ve also lectured at Universities about my work. Like at
Indiana University of Pennsylvania, I taught a section of the 3D Design class about my work because it does teach a lot of constructive-ness and engineering, you know, ‘learning by doing’. And in addition for the participants like the elementary school teachers, it’s got the secondary content about learning about plastics, the environment, the importance of recycling and much more. There’s lots of ways this can be used.

As for the future, who knows what’s going to happen? The book is coming out and I’d like to do a lot more workshops. We might be getting into some licensing, I’m not sure. I’ve found that my work is very popular with children’s’ hospitals and children’s’ museums. For example, I’m currently working on my second commission for the
Boston Children’s Hospital. Last year, I did a piece for the Creative Discovery museum in Chattanooga, which is a great place where kids can get hands-on learning about science and more. We did a giant piece that we called the ‘Handmade World’. We traced the kids’ hands, then cut the shapes out and made a network out of these which covered a 5-foot diameter ‘globe’. This was well-received because then the kids that visited got to feel like they were directly involved and able to actively participate, that there was a little bit of themselves in the final piece.

And that’s great in my eyes, because it’s about letting everyone participate in art making, which goes back to my earlier discussion about the fine art world. There’s just so much about this field that’s not welcoming to people. So I find a good deal of satisfaction in that I think of myself as being somewhat of a revolutionary in that way.

Why have you referred then to your work with ‘Plastiquarium’ as a kind of ‘mid-life catharsis’?
I refer it to this way because it was changing the track of my artistic pursuits in a major way. For example, people who had known me for 20 years – that knew me as a welder – would just say, ‘What happened, Dave? You did what? You went from doing constructivist steel work to cutting up plastic bottles?” So it was a bit of a catharsis to do that.

But catharsis is not a bad word. It’s perhaps a bad sounding word, but it’s meaning is actually quite positive for me.

That’s what I was going to say, because for me, ‘catharsis’ sounds like some kind of explosion.
Sure, it’s a bit of an explosion of the standards that I’ve been operating under for 25 years. But I accepted this and said to myself: “Hey, I can do this and there’s nothing to be ashamed of!” In fact, it’s very much something to celebrate!

For example, I had this great experience at the
McColl Center for the Visual Arts in Charlotte. The center is in an old gothic-style church and I got to do a residency there. One part I really enjoyed about my time there was the fact that you left the door open and the general public could just wander into your studio and have a conversation. And when I was wrapping up there I had one of their marketing people approach me and say, “We’ve had stronger positive comments about your studio work than practically anyone else we’ve had do this!” And I think that means that I’m making work that people find approachable. They find it like I mentioned intellectually acceptable. They can look at it – and this includes kids, too – and say, “This is fun, look at that cool thing!” And for the audience that includes people that are more educated in the field of fine art, well, they can also look at it and think “Oh, this highlights what is going on with that environmental disaster, with the re-sedimentation of oil deposits”, etc. There are lot’s of levels of contact and appreciation that offer reward for everyone.

Why then was it a catharsis? It was a change for me. A big change!

With that in mind, do you think that in part that the acceptance of your current work is perhaps due to the fact that someone can safely stand there and discuss what you’re doing whilst you put together a new piece for the ‘Plastiquarium’? Especially if you compare this to a situation where you’re working with steel and there would be somewhat more of an inherent danger in standing too close to watch you work?
Therein is one of the unfortunate aspects of visual arts in the broad sense in that visual artists tend to work in isolation. They are loners. They don’t get a whole lot of feedback and public involvement. In comparison, performing artists HAVE to work in ensemble relationships. They are used to collaborating and performing publicly. So you’re seeing their art as they do it. Whereas with visual artists, usually you see the results, you see the ‘after’, the end-product.

You know, one of the great things for me about being invited by the Southern Highland Craft Guild to participate in their shows is that I’m asked to participate as a demonstrator, not just as an exhibitor. I think that’s extremely generous of them and I will always jump whenever they call! I find it a real privilege to support them in any way possible. But I receive so much in return. I get a tremendous amount of enjoyment out of showing people how to do it and I like spreading the word!

That’s me: I want to be an evangelist for recycled plastic art!

I see that your wife has helped you write the book you have coming out. How has she contributed to your success with ‘Plastiquarium’?
My wife,
Robin, is actually a very successful writer and published author (plus much more!).

We were discussing it one day and I told her that I’d really like to publish a book about my art form, similar to something like
Bobby Hansson’s ‘The Fine Art of the Tin Can’, which also has to do with working with packaging and other post consumer goods. But you know, a book doesn’t just happen like that! You have to do a book proposal, you have to find a publisher and more! It involves a lot more than just writing the darn thing!

And as it happens, while I had a residency at the
Wildacres Retreat Center in Little Switzerland, North Carolina (ZN: which is very close in fact to Gooch Gap!), Robin came along with me. And while I was doing my residency work, she developed the book proposal from A to Z. So we took it afterwards to Lark Books which is part of Sterling Publishing and they jumped on the idea. But Robin is so very good at this process and she knows about all the documentation’s you have to put together! She just knows how to make it happen!

Obviously, using recycled plastics gives you a nice big supply of materials to work with. But I’m curious if you ever rush out to buy something just because you have to have a certain color or shape?
I’ve never done it that way, that is go out and get something specifically for my work. And I have rarely – very very rarely – been out shopping and seen something that I liked where I’ve wound up buying it to get the unique colors or forms. I did do that recently at one store, where they were selling a new brand of bottled water. The plastic bottles had this lovely deep, almost opaque sapphire blue that was really hard to find. So, in this case, I did buy a two-liter bottle of the stuff so I could have the plastic!

On the other hand, for the Boston Children’s Hospital project, I need a lot of a certain type of plastic bottle to help illustrate a good deal of seaweed I’m including in the design. So I’ve been kind of scouring our neighbors’ bins trying to find the right green bottles from a particular brand of Ginger Ale so I can make enough of my seaweed! But actually, when you’ve been picking up bottles in the neighborhood as long as we have, you tend to learn where you can count on certain ‘supplies’. Don’t worry: I’m not counting liquor bottles or anything and getting all the ‘dirt’ on the people around me! But I’ll admit, you do gain insight on where to find what. Like in this case, we have one neighbor that has this total penchant for the exact brand of Diet Ginger Ale that comes in the green bottles that give me my seaweed. So I know I can count reliably on finding several pieces from her collection bin every week to help me finish my design!

Thanks to my handy system – I carry an old shoelace with me and tie a loop in one end and cart home the bottles like a string of fish - I’ve got a good amount of different supplies hanging in my basement. But sometimes I do have issues with discontinued packaging colors. I’ve actually been really surprised in the five years I’ve been doing this to see how often the designs and the colors change for packaging! I mean, it’s all based on focus group research and all the different brands are trying to be the first to catch the latest wave of ‘in’ colors and forms. Which in some way then reflects positively I guess on my work as well!

What’s next for ‘Plastiquarium’? Are you looking, for example, at new promotions or even taking it overseas?
We’d love to go international with it. We have had a little bit of international exposure with a traveling exhibit that made it’s way to Beirut. The book is already starting to make some in-roads and is getting noticed just about everywhere. It’s already being pre-ordered and a lot of people are writing me even by e-mail to tell me how much they are looking forward to it’s release. We’ve even received requests to publish it in other languages, like Spanish or even Portuguese for South America. The publisher seems to be okay with global promotion as well because they took it with them to the London Book Fair and they’ve included a clause in our contract for international production rights. No matter what happens though, I’ll be happy to take it as far as it goes.

In terms of making more ‘volume’ of my pieces in order to try and get more commercial exposure: well, I like the fact that right now it’s all individually hand-made by me. But how long I’m going to be able to make sure I make every aspect of it is hard to say. There’s always the kind of internal argument about moving work to more of a ‘mass production’ scale. This is because it’s an uphill battle sometimes in terms of taking work to a commercial level.

As any artist or designer will tell you, there’s an intrinsic issue of maintaining the value-added part of your work vs. dealing with people’s perceptions – which they are fully within their rights to have. In my case, people do quite often ask themselves about whether or not they want to spend their hard-earned money on something I’ve made from recycled plastic? With commissions or other works, it’s a little different, sure; there the artistic value is viewed in a different light. But let’s say if someone is looking at one of the brooches I make – and perhaps they’ve even stood there at the show and watched me cut one out of different bottles and put it all together (it takes me about an hour to finish one of these pieces). When they see that maybe the price is very similar to a pair of silver earrings or something similar they’ve seen down at the local department store, then again, it can be a struggle.

Still, the important thing for me right now is that I’m having a lot of fun with it. I really enjoy it and that’s what counts!


As mentioned, David Edgar pries his craft from his home in Charlotte, North Carolina where he is retired from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte as an Associate Professor of Art. David also served in the past as the chair of the Art Department and was Associate Professor of Sculpture at Ashland University in Ohio. In addition, for twelve years he held the position of Executive Director for The Armory Art Center in West Palm Beach, Florida and he did indeed work as a ‘Imagineer’ for the Disney Corporation.

While earning his MFA in Sculpture from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, Edgar worked as a preservation technician in the conservation department of the Henry Ford Museum. He also holds a BFA in Sculpture from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. He has also served as an officer on various community service committees and boards on serving city, county and state issues.

Although he continues to enjoy life in North Carolina, and has appreciated all of the various ‘M’ places he has studied and worked over the years, David would like to point out that he is indeed a faithful third generation Floridian. In keeping with his studio work in a wide range of materials, his history as an exhibiting studio sculptor since 1975 reflects the wide range of his described ‘consistent activity’ with his artwork. Examples of David’s work can be found nationally in corporate, institutional, and private collections. For more, please feel free to browse through his well-maintained


All pictures used by exclusive written permission by David Edgar. All images and the use of titles, including references to ‘Plastiquarium’ are strictly for use in this article and may not be copied or otherwise utilized without express permission by the artist or the respective agencies depicted.

Picture descriptions Part 2
1. front cover of
‘Fantastic Recycled Plastic’, by David Edgar & Robin A. Edgar from Lark Books, a division of Sterling Publishing Co, Inc. (release Nov.’09)
2. ‘Super Hero Helmet’, 11" x 14" x 14"
3. ‘Googler’, 15" x 11" x 4"
4. logo of the
Southern Highland Craft Guild
5. ‘Freddy’, 14" x 9" x 24"
6. ‘Green Fiesta Jellyfish Lamp’, 15" x 5" x 7"
7. back cover of ‘Fantastic Recycled Plastic’ (see above)
8. ‘Plastizoic Genesis Creature’, 48" x 16" x 11"
9. table of contents from ‘Fantastic Recycled Plastic’ (see above)
10. ‘A Handmade World’, 66" x 66", as part of artist residency at the
Creative Discovery museum in Chattanooga
11. mock up design for display in production for Boston Children’s Hospital
McColl Center for the Visual Arts in Charlotte, North Carolina (picture in public domain from various sources)
13. ‘Fantasy Crab’, 8" x 11" x 10"
14. ‘Reef Floral Details’
15. David Edgar and Robin Edgar
16. Assorted Fish Pins, 2 to 4" long
17. David Allen Edgar

For more information about all images, please refer to for more!

1 comment:

Francesca Prescott said...

I love all these incredible creations! My father always draws fish, and I couldn't help thinking that if he could actually make them, they'd look like these. Thanks for introducing me to this fascinating artist, Ziggy.