Design-Nation member Bronwen Gwillim makes statement, one-off pieces of wearable art jewellery from waste plastic. Bronwen is the ideal member to talk to about sustainable making and how it has impacted on her practice, so Design-Nation asked her a few questions.
Design-Nation: Please tell us about your practice and how your business began.
Bronwen answered: I’ve always made things out of scrap. As a teenager in the 70s I picked up bits of scrap wood from my Dad’s workshop (he built boats), painted them in groovy colours and strung them on leather cord. There weren’t many outlets in our village so I persuaded the baker’s shop to display them in amongst the bread!! Remarkably they sold.
In the 80s, after going to art college, I worked in a community arts project helping people make things from recycled waste via the Hackney Scrap Project. Back then the Scrap Project was an absolute pioneer in seeing the creative potential of up-cycling industrial waste: they are still going strong today as part of a national network of children’s scrap stores.
In the 90s I went back to college and trained as a silversmith: I then ran a business making and selling jewellery for many years and loved it. I had a stall at Greenwich craft market in London, and sold via galleries and shops around the country.
After a gap in my making life and a spell of illness I realised that I needed to be creative again. It was whilst studying for an MA that I started working with waste plastic – I wanted to use colour and plastic was freely available. I had little money and so it made good sense financially as well as environmentally. I felt free to experiment and play in a way I hadn’t previously.
So now I collect plastic washed up on the beach where I live in Pembrokeshire. I cut, shape and form it using hand tools, and I mix it with other materials such as silver and resin to make bold statement pieces. I am inspired by the other things I find on the beach such as pebbles, seaweed, fossils and shells. I have had to learn how to identify different types of plastic and to work safety with each type. This involves lots of different techniques developed through trial and error and some are unique to me.
DN: What inspires you?
BG: As well as being inspired by nature and the things I find, I love the bold colour and simple marks of abstract expressionist paintings and mid century modern textiles. I think of my pieces as wearable art for people who want to make a positive statement.
DN: How does your practice centre on sustainability?
B.G: I live in a beautiful part of Wales and I’m lucky enough to have the sea at the bottom of my garden. It’s a site of special scientific interest because of the extraordinary diversity of bird, marine and plant life but when I look across the bay there’s an oil refinery! It’s a constant reminder of the bad decisions we have made and spurs me on to live a more sustainable life. My work plays on the edge between nature and industry, the enticing colours of plastic and its terrible impact – and I hope in a little way it helps raise awareness of our need to address climate change and plastic pollution.
My approach to making my practice as sustainable as possible is to keep on identifying the weaknesses and then trying to do something to lessen them or reduce their impact, one by one. I currently use recycled silver, waste plastic and bio resins as my main materials, and cardboard packaging but in lesser amounts.
I work mostly with hand tools, so use little electricity and I reuse most of my waste: this is achieved by mixing the plastic dust I create with bio resin, to create a new composite material. Bio resins aren’t great as they aren’t recyclable, even if they don’t use fossil fuels in their manufacture. Also in creating this new material I know I am saving up a potential problem as this mixture will be impossible to recycle at the end of its life. To mitigate against this I offer to reuse pieces of jewellery if they are returned to me but I know this isn’t a long term solution. It’s a weakness that I need to address.
Increasingly I’m making one-offs, working to order and making specially commissioned pieces – this means I am not over-producing things and it means my customers feel a greater connection to the pieces I make. I hope this translates into them having more meaning, being kept longer and being passed on as heirlooms.
DN: What would make it easier for you to change your practice: what kind of support would help you embrace sustainability and ethical making practices? And what topics interest you for future research and development?
B.G: Working with waste presents many challenges. My supply of beach plastic is ever changing and sporadic. So I am having to adapt to new types of plastic and to create more storage for when there is a glut. I know that I want to develop new partnerships with beach cleaning groups from further afield, but I am concerned that I will be overwhelmed with the stuff and it won’t be the right type. For me, running a sustainable business is about it working for me and keeping some control over my life. Another weakness is I really don’t know what the future brings – at the moment people are very interested in waste plastic as a raw resource for making but this may not last – there is no tradition behind what I do.