Woven and Waxed Water Stories

By Susan Hoffman Fishman

Hawai’i-based fiber artist Mary Babcock uses discarded fishing nets and lines as well as household wax paper to create tapestries and installations about sea level rise, “our proclivity towards destruction or entanglement,” and our perceptions of and relationship to water. The process of self-laminating wax paper for installations and of cleaning, sorting, and unravelling abandoned, tangled fishing nets and lines and then weaving them into something completely new, is the manifestation of her refusal to see anything as unworkable or unrepairable, including the climate crisis. 

Babcock found her chosen materials 16 years ago while she was living on the coast of Oregon. There, she met a member of the Columbia River Fisherman’s Protective Union, which conducts a recycling program for used fishing gear. He had recently removed large quantities of fishing nets from the Columbia River because they were clogging up the estuary. When Babcock saw the nets, she was attracted to their intrinsic beauty, their cost (free!), and the fact that they were about to be burned anyway. Taking a considerable stockpile of nets and lines, she began to experiment in making what she now refers to as her large-scale, “messy, non-traditional” tapestries. 

Unraveled fishing nets and lines.

After she moved to Hawai’i in 2006 to assume a professorship in Fiber Arts and Extended Studies at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, Babcock had access to a plentiful source of new materials washing up on the beaches from the Pacific Ocean. She immersed herself in the local culture, which is centered around water, and by 2006, began an ongoing series of tapestries that she calls “Hydrophilia,” meaning “water-loving.” While the earlier works in the series refer to qualities of water such as turbulence, intensity, and fluidity, more recent pieces focus on water’s vulnerabilities and are titled after latitude lines. The latitude indicators identify the location of the environmentally vulnerable areas she is highlighting, and suggest that issues occurring anywhere along these global geographic connectors impact us all. 

1° 55’ 30” N (Self Portrait as Atoll), 68” x 96” x 3”. Salvaged fishing nets and lines collected across the Pacific Ocean, deep sea leader line and terrestrial, celestial, and aquatic maps, 2015. On loan to the U.S. Embassy in Nicosia, Cyprus. Photo by Chris Rohrer.
1° 55’ 30” N (Self Portrait as Atoll), detail. 68” x 96” x 3”. Salvaged fishing nets and lines collected across the Pacific Ocean, deep sea leader line and terrestrial, celestial, and aquatic maps, 2015. On loan to the U.S. Embassy in Nicosia, Cyprus. Photo by Chris Rohrer.

All of Babcock’s tapestries have back stories that provide narrative context to the pieces. 1° 55’ 30” (Self Portrait as Atoll) references the Republic of Maldives, an archipelago of 1,190 coral islands in the Indian Ocean, most of which stand at only 1 meter or 3.3 feet above sea level. With the flattest topography on Earth, the Republic of Maldives faces an uncertain future. Scientists predict it stands to lose 77% of its land area to sea level rise by 2100. Babcock used an image of herself immersed in the ocean and memories of her newborn’s swimming lessons as inspiration for the design of the tapestry. The rich turquoise color of the netting, which happens to be the same color as the water in Hawai’i, and the lush weaving are in direct contrast to the darkness of the subject matter.   

10° 20′ 32” N, Babcock’s most recent tapestry(see image at the top of the article) was inspired by a December 17, 2020 BBC News article about an abandoned “ghost boat” filled with $80 million’s worth of cocaine that washed ashore on Ailuk Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. The weaving pattern of the tapestry is based on a map developed by the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, which indicates the likely drift currents flowing from South America, where the boat originated, to the Marshall Islands. Scientists developing the map needed to take into consideration changing sea currents resulting from global warming. When Babcock designed the tapestry, she was thinking about how the increasing power of the ocean had determined the fate of the boat and its missing passenger(s?). She was also thinking about the vast economic disparity evident between the enormous worth of the cargo and the very modest income of Marshall Island residents – only one example of the global economic reality.

Oh Columbia, 24’ x 24’ x 12’. Installation with hand-laminated and stitched household wax paper, sea salt. Installed at the Oxygen Art Center, Nelson, British Columbia, Canada, 2019. Photo by Randi Fjeldseth.
Oh Columbia, detail, 24’ x 24’ x 12’. Installation with hand-laminated and stitched household wax paper, sea salt. Installed at the Oxygen Art Center, Nelson, British Columbia, Canada, 2019. Photo by Randi Fjeldseth.

In 2019, Babcock was invited to attend an artist residency at the Oxygen Art Center in Nelson, British Columbia, Canada. During her residency, she created an installation based on the catastrophic history of Vanport, Oregon. Located on the Columbia River outside Portland, Vanport was hastily built on a flood plain in 1942 as a temporary wartime public housing project for Portland’s shipyard workers. When the war ended, many of the thousands who stayed on in the slip-shod houses were African Americans, prevented by discriminatory housing practices from living in Portland itself. Predictably, a major flood in 1948 destroyed all of the structures in Vanport and displaced 18,500 residents who had received no warning that the dikes on the river had been breached upstream. Babcock created Oh Columbia as a cautionary tale about the impact of reckless, corporate greed, drawing parallels to current practices of placing corporate profit over the wellbeing of the planet and its residents.

Oh Columbia is made out of household wax paper that has been stitched, pierced, layered, and hand-laminated with an iron. The suspended portion of the installation is comprised of a map of Vanport, Oregon; the floor section references glacial melts and an outline of Greenland. As a whole, Oh Columbia is a ghostly reflection of what is no longer there – a town washed away as a result of negligent corporate policies, and whole portions of glaciers melting as a result of the man-made climate crisis. 

Lotic Sea, 14’ x 14’ x 14’. Hand-laminated and stitched household wax paper, sea salt, 2019. Installed at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa Art Gallery, Honolulu, HI. Photo by Kelly Ciurej.
Lotic Sea, 14’ x 14’ x 14’, detail. Hand-laminated and stitched household wax paper, sea salt, 2019. Installed at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa Art Gallery, Honolulu, HI. Photo by Kelly Ciurej.

The term “lotic water” is defined as “rapidly moving fresh water.” Babcock’s installation, Lotic Sea, both references the melting glaciers that are adding volumes of fresh water to the oceans and questions the nature of borders during a time when sea level rise is literally claiming the coastal lands of island nations. Lotic Sea also refers to the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) that were designed to confer full sovereignty to island nations over the waters for 200 miles off their coastlines. The EEZ’s were created to potentially protect the islands from industrial exploitation of natural resources in the ocean but have become vulnerable as island governments succumb to attractive financial offers by corporate entities.  

On the surface of the layered, wax paper installation, hand-stitched lines represent the EEZ borders of several Pacific Island nations, while the islands themselves, outlined with simple holes pricked into the surface of the paper and off to the right of the EEZ lines, appear to have slipped or flowed outside of the geopolitical boundaries. The luminous light in the gallery activated the installation so that it seemed as if the ocean itself had entered the space.  

Hand-laminating wax paper with an iron, or changing the wax in the paper to liquid and fusing additional pieces to it, is a slow, meticulous process. So is untangling and unraveling fishing nets and lines and reweaving them into complex tapestries. Babcock considers all of these processes themselves to be significant components of her work, enabling her to slow down and become a witness to what is happening around her. At heart, she is a storyteller. Her woven stories and laminated wax paper installations demonstrate how we can repair the remnants of our world and live in a way that is more meaningful and environmentally just.

(Top image: 10° 20′ 32” N, 44” x 96” x 3”, detail. Salvaged fishing nets and lines collected from across the Pacific Ocean with deep-sea leader line, 2021 (in process).)

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate disruption a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.

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Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist and writer whose work has been exhibited widely in museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Since 2011, all of her paintings, installations and photographs have addressed water and climate change. She co-created a national, participatory public art project, The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and which has inspired thousands of adults and children of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to protect this vital resource. Her most recent body of work calls attention to the growing number of rampikes along our shores – trees that have been exposed to salt water and died as a result of rising tides.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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