WHAT on earth did we do before we had plastic? Why, we used earth, of course.
Ceramic artist Martha Cashman has been giving pottery workshops in Cork to inspire people to move beyond a throw-away lifestyle dependent on single-use plastic. She says the key to unlocking a future world with a healthier materials economy is our creativity.
Martha, a graduate of Crawford College of Art and Design, has linked in with a Europe-wide network of potters and ceramicists called More Clay, Less Plastic, who say that part of the answer to finding alternatives to plastic as a material lies in pressing rewind and rediscovering what clay has to offer.
“My project is trying to educate and share the news and trying to get people to be creative and work with clay,” Martha says.
The artist and educator says that, in her work with various groups in Cork, she’s learned that creativity brings empowerment: “The fact you can make functional items says something about you. Working with clay brings grounding and focus on process.”
A connection to the earth has been a cornerstone of Martha’s own work, based on her childhood as one of eight siblings on her father’s arable farm in East Cork, near Ballymacoda.
The farm was, she says, organic by default; the family used traditional methods like seaweed harvest to enrich their land, and this wasn’t questioned until Irish agricultural policy started pushing more intensive farming methods based on chemical fertilisers in the 1970s.
“Everything was so pristine,” she says. “I’ll never forget, as a child, the agri-advisor who came to belittle my father’s techniques and to try to get him to switch to chemical fertilisers; ‘You have eight children, you know,’ he said to him. ‘You’ll get a better much better yield and be able to diversify.’ In fact, my father was decades ahead of his time.”
Martha says her family was also conscious of the lack of sustainability in the material change towards single-use plastics, asking where all this material was going to end up.
“The idea of trying to keep the plastic down has always been in my life and now, lo and behold, it’s all — shock horror — what have we done to our environment in such a short space of time?” she says.
Martha has offered her More Clay, Less Plastic workshops to groups including Zero Waste Cork, The Lantern Project in the Nano Nagle Centre, The Next Step mental health group, and will begin work with a Foróige group in Knocknaheeny this springtime.
In her first set of workshops, Martha helped groups to build ceramic garden bird feeders, colourfully painted and glazed.
“Plastic is ending up in the food chain, so the idea is to replace the plastic feeder with one you’ve made yourself,” she says.
“A metal thread bar feeds up into the centre of the glazed clay feeding dish, and it screws into the ground.”
Last year was marked by yet further awareness of the global problem that is single-use plastic.
Driven by increasing consumer outcry, the Irish Government announced the small measure of a ban on single-use plastics across government departments, state agencies, hospitals and schools in December. EU-wide legislation on single-use plastics is awaited.
The numbers in the story of how plastics have come to dominate our global materials economy are alarming. Annually, 8 million metric tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean. Globally, of the 6.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic waste produced since the 1950s, just 9% has been recycled. The rest has gone to landfill, incinerator plumes and our oceans.
Martha says that the scale of the plastic pollution problem can seem vast and unmanageable at times.
“Slowly, we are dealing with it, but how do we eradicate what we’ve done already, not to mention cutting down on future manufacture?” she says.
“I get a bit frustrated: I kind of go headlong and then stop. I’m trying to hold on to some sense of my creative practice too. It’s only me in my own shoes, and what I can do in my time on this planet.”
Martha’s More Clay, Less Plastic workshops are just one element of her eco-awareness and personal activism. She’s a member of Cork Environmental Forum, she owns shares in the innovative Future Orchard project in Glanmire, and completed a two-week permaculture course during the summer, as well as collaborating with other potters on a ceramics project in Turkey.
As a ceramicist, Martha believes it’s important to tackle the plastic waste produced in her own industry too. People who work with clay often use plastic sheeting to wrap their clay and stop it from drying out, and pots for mixing and storing glazes.
“In the workshops, I’m trying to say, what could you use for this function?” she says. “I ask if we could look at making a difference in the building, even down to how many plastic bags we use in the bin, or plastic being used to wrap clay or mix glazes.”
Martha maintains her own art practice in sculptural ceramics, inspired by her ecological concerns.
She’s a member of the Cork Society of Potters and holds regular exhibitions of her work, which is often made from delicate white porcelain and nature-derived materials like native Irish wood.
But, to highlight the need to move away from plastics, collaboration is where it’s at, she says: “I’m looking for the teamwork. I don’t want to harp on about the negatives: you have to walk the walk.
“I’m out there with different networks and trying to link in with different people, because it’s all about community engagement and community empowerment. If I just make a little change in someone’s life, I’m happy.”
For more, you can find More Clay Less Plastic — Cork city Ireland on Facebook