Artist Mariana Nelson’s powerful and poetic metamorphosis of discarded material–braiding, melting, wrapping and more.

By MaterialDriven
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Reclaiming discarded material through art

If you are a young designer, like me, looking at Mariana Nelson’s work will compel you with an urge to be in her studio, watch her metamorphose discarded materials and perhaps, if you are lucky, learn from her.

The reason for this is that Mariana’s work captures material like discarded spools of thread, plastics biohazard bags, and thousands of coffee-cups lids, and turns them into meaningful, thought-provoking art. Several artists are working with recycled and reused materials today, but Mariana’s work stands out to me in a few significant ways. 

The first is the degree of transformation that her processes and techniques induce, turning ‘garbage’ to art. The second is that she has an even greater purpose for these objects once they are transformed.  Hundreds of perfect spheres of ‘Temari’, hand woven by her from discarded thread, over a period of years, come together to create incredible wall-hung compositions. Warped plastic lids are altered to the point that, together, their petal-like forms read like beautiful, vibrant fungus, perched on trees.

These transformed materials have a higher purpose clearly, and a message to convey about the world we live in, and the materials we use so blatantly and discard.
Mariana transforms the inorganic to organic, and objects and materials we dismiss to objects of contemplation and reflection.

It was our pleasure to interview Mariana last week. This is our conversation and interview with her:

Mariana’s introduction and journey with discarded materials

MD: Mariana, when and how did you arrive at working with discarded materials and transforming them into your first, signature artwork with ‘Temari’?

Mariana: In the 1990’s, I was working at a bank. But I was also on the board of a great foundation called SCRAP* at the time.  Then and today, SCRAP diverts several hundred tons of material from landfills every year and orients them to creative reuse. Often teachers, artists, craftsmen and designers find materials at SCRAP which they can reappropriate.

During this association with SCRAP, I encountered spools of factory-yarn, among the materials available for reuse. I started working with them–using the yarn to wrap continuously around little bits of miscellaneous recycled material. These early pieces were displayed at the SCRAP warehouse. After two years of working with the yarn repetitively, I began to see perfect spheres appear. It was then that I transitioned to a more fine thread, and started to create what resembled Temari. I went on to create the Temari for seven years after that, often working at odd hours of the day and night. This act of creating the Temari, slowly and meditatively, gave me peace of mind as I dealt with a disabling sleep disorder.

While I did not have formal training in art, I was familiar with the Japanese craft technique of Temari when I began working with the yarn and threads. Temari are traditional ‘handballs’ from Japan (and before that China). Traditionally, the Temari were constructed from remnants of old kimonos. Pieces of silk fabric would be wadded up to form a ball, and then the wad would be wrapped with strips of fabric and even embroidered.

*SCRAP- A Source for the Resourceful, is a non-profit creative reuse center, materials depot, and workshop space founded in 1976 in San Francisco, California.

MD: Mariana, yours is a modern interpretation of the Temari–recycled material of all types forms the core of the Temari you make, and then you go on to create beautiful wall-hung compositions from the Temari- treating them almost like individual pops of color. That seems to take them a step forward. What responses have you seen to your work from people who are familiar with the more traditional, cultural roots of Temari?

Mariana: The first time that my work with Temari was publicly shown, was two years ago. It received an excellent response, and I found that several people from Chinese and Korean heritage reacted to it favorably. Even though in traditional Temari, the patterns are far more intense and unlike the ones I had made, these viewers were able to identify with the technique and understand my work completely.

Process and prominent projects

MD: Time has been a vital ingredient behind some of the art you have created– the Temari took several years to make. Going forward, do you see yourself continuing this process, or adapting it as time goes on?

Mariana: Going forward, my goal is certainly to create pieces in a shorter timeline. In fact, three years ago, I stopped creating new Temari. By then I had managed to create 12 large glass containers of them, each organized by color. Each container of the Temari took me six months to make. Interestingly, a few weeks ago, the Gates Foundation purchased 3 of those simple glass containers which hold hundreds of colored Temari. I was so honored and happy.

In my future artworks I will be looking to include a few pieces of these existing Temari, but not use only them. Additionally, there are several newer, recycled materials which I am currently working with and exploring as a medium.

MD: That leads us to your next series of works, which is so intriguing– The beautiful organic forms you have created with plastic ‘Starbucks’ coffee lids. Tell us how this series of works began.

Mariana: Well, it started with me asking a friend to collect a few plastic coffee cup lids from his office. In a short amount of time, I had accumulated thousands of these lids. These lids were of immense interest to me, the primary reason being that they are made of Type-6 plastic. Type-6 plastic cannot be recycled, so these lids continue to persist and accrue as waste for years.
I began experimenting with these lids; first trying my tested techniques of wrapping them with threads and then trying to heat and warp them. This led to some interesting results, and I found that each type of plastic compound melted differently and into different shapes.

As for the organic forms you see now, I have likened some of the works to fungus. Like fungus, which is growing everywhere, on land and in the oceans, these plastic pieces too, are persisting and depositing everywhere, in all parts of the world.


The orange fungus I have created from such plastic lids, for the Festival of Arts in Laguna Beach, CA, will be on shown for the summer. The artwork, which is installed on the bark of the tree, like fungus, will continue to grow as the season progresses. Very much like the organic form it is recreating.
Recently, I have seen insects begin to treat the fungus as they would treat a natural form, and inhabit it. Since I like to add signage and information to my pieces, this piece too has signage and statistics about plastics and their use.

MD: Weaving with threads and plastics, braiding bio-hazard bags–there are so many innovative techniques you have developed and are employing. Which are you most excited about growing further and engaging in your future work?

Mariana: Right now, I am most interested in fusing plastic together. I have been working on using heat and a pressing machine to combine several layers of waste plastic together, and then begin to mold the fused plastic as a whole. When I braid or weave the plastic, I am forced still to discard the tops and bottoms of some plastic pieces. 
With the pressing technique, there will be zero waste, or a 100 percent reuse and consumption of discarded plastics.

Organizations and support

MD: Mariana, you have had the support of and collaboration some great organizations. Tell us about them.

Mariana: SCRAP, in San Francisco, is one organization I am eternally grateful to. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to create any of my artworks. Sourcing threads without their help would have been prohibitively expensive and would have made making the Temari impossible.

Support for my work has also come from Building REsources– a not for profit organization dedicated to providing the San Francisco community with low-cost, high-quality materials. The first two shows of my work were held at the Gallery at Building REsources, thanks to their support.

MD: Mariana, where do you see your work going, in the future?

Mariana: I would love to be able to do much larger peices– site-specific installations that can be used to educate people about the reality and usage of plastics. Say if I could magnify my work from the Festival of the Arts- to cover multiple trees in the city, with the plastic made- fungus, that would be a spectacular opportunity.

MD: Thank you so much, Mariana, for speaking with us and sharing your wonderful journey, perspective and transformations of materials!

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