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Local metalsmith transforms plastic into something new for waste awareness exhibit

PMG PHOTO: JANAE EASLON - Miel-Margarita Paredes is an artist living in Cedar Mill, participating in GLEAN, an exhibit showcasing artwork made from discarded materials."To glean" means to collect bit by bit, gradually.

Artist Miel-Margarita Paredes is in her home studio, holding up mosaic-like melted pieces against a light, describing how many various plastic items created the unpredictable patterns.

The Cedar Mill resident and former LAIKA employee is one of five artists who were selected to be featured in an upcoming exhibition called GLEAN. In preperation for their upcoming art show, they spent their time gleaning at the Metro Central Transfer Station, also known as the dump, in northwest Portland.

Started in 2010, GLEAN is an art program that asks artists to create bodies of work that address issues surrounding consumption and waste. It is a partnership between Recology Portland, a waste collection company that reclaims useful materials; Metro, the regional government that manages the Portland area's garbage and recycling system and crackedpots, a nonprofit environmental arts organization devoted to reducing waste and promoting creative reuse in the community.

The challenge for the artists was this: most of their artwork had to use discarded items from the dump.

When she heard about it, Paredes knew instantly she wanted to apply and have plastic be her main medium, she said.

"I've been thinking about the plastic problem for years now," she said. "I remember as a kid learning that this will be a problem, things aren't recyclable and that some people aren't recycling. For a while, it was something my family gave me a hard time [about], being this 'little environmental warrior' in middle school. Now I have kids, and I worry what is going to be left for them."

Plastic process

Paredes saw inspiration online when a Kickstarter effort showed how to recycle plastic at home — and from there, she knew someday she would try it firsthand, she said.

PMG PHOTO: JANAE EASLON - With her background in metalsmithing, Paredes designed molds, such as this lobster mold, to melt plastic into for her 2019 GLEAN art installation. 
Paredes still works full-time in stop-motion animation at Shadow Machine's Portland office after leaving LAIKA, based in Hillsboro. A mother of two, since finding out she was accepted into GLEAN, when she isn't at work or with her family, she is in her studio chipping away at the months-long project.

Colorful lobsters, lying on a table lined up, are some of the pieces made by Paredes from reclaimed plastic products. By learning to work with the synthetic material, Paredes found out in the GLEAN process that only some plastics are recyclable.

The Society of the Plastics Industry established a classification system in 1988, establishing seven different types for consumers and recyclers to understand.

Because of toxicity, Paredes could only work with a select few types of plastic. Many of the them, from storage container lids to plastic bags, have a range of colors she purposely wanted to see in her art pieces.

According to several reports, billions of pounds of plastic flow into the ocean each year, with most of the plastic produced in the world used for packaging. A report by UC Santa Barbara showed that less than one-fifth of all plastic is recycled, with the United States recycling about 9% of its plastic trash.

"I discovered at the dump is there is a lot of stuff that is technically recyclable that is reusable that is frankly just fine, but it is old and no one wants it or take the time for washing it or it is a little bit broken," Paredes said.

On the first day, Paredes said she collected enough plastic at the Metro Central Transfer Station to produce what will become her part of GLEAN.

Like Paredes's past pieces, her designs are influenced by animal imagery. Lobsters, mice and flies will be featured in her GLEAN installation, casted from metal molds.

With her background in metalsmithing, Paredes exercised the chasing and repoussé techniques, which, with hammering into metal, generate the shapes of the molds. It is a delicate and time-consuming process, Paredes said.

"It looks like you are chiseling, but you aren't removing any material, you are pushing it back and forth," Paredes said. "I wanted to see if I could melt plastic in these metal forms and pop them out like an ice cube. And it ended up working."

By cutting all the plastics in smaller forms, Paredes could melt them easier, and found she could create flat sheets with a toaster oven and the help of parchment paper and plywood.

Inspiration from nature

Paredes took her first metalsmithing class in high school and still has her project from that class on a shelf at her home. Every part of her studio has something that inspired her in one way or another, from a "Labyrinth" board game, a movie that made her want to be in the film industry in the first place, to her children's drawings of monsters hanging on the wall.

"All my favorite stories as a kid involved talking animals or magical animals," she said. "As I have gotten older, I have found it interesting this hierarchy of what animals we find valuable and what animals we use as symbols. I used to make a lot of armor in my metalwork, and a lot of armors I would see would have fierce animals like lions or noble characteristics. Or in Japan, helmets would be in the shape of rabbits, symbolizing longevity."

PMG PHOTO: JANAE EASLON - Lobsters made from melted plastic found at the dump line Miel-Margarita Paredes' workspace, ready to be installed at the GLEAN 2019 exhibit in Portland.

Paredes grew up in the United States and her family is from the Philippines. Many of her past and present art pieces explore the contrast between Western culture and its representation of animals compared to other cultures, she said.

"It is intriguing with how I think about those things with my ties to both cultures," Paredes said. "For example, lobsters, in my family, is our fancy food. Food is very important to Filipinos and what we offer to our guests is very important. It is also this thing where people who aren't familiar with the food of other cultures have a strong reaction to them and think 'Oh, that is different or strange or smells funny.' That has been a reoccurring theme in my life, frankly."

"And with mice, you see infestation and could represent the pervasiveness of rodents, similar to the plastic problem," she said. "I thought I was conscious of it before, but now I see plastic everywhere, and we can't escape it."

GLEAN 2019 Exhibition

Opening night: Thursday, Aug. 1.

Duration: Through Sunday, Aug. 25.

When: noon to 5 p.m., Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays

Cost: Free

Where: 1313 N.W. Kierney St., Portland

Reception: 6-9 p.m.


By Janae Easlon
Features Editor
Forest Grove News-Times and Hillsboro Tribune
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