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Your DNA might be in Bryan Northup’s sculpture

A structured piece created in Northup’s signature style from single-use rolled waste during the ‘Sea Inside’ exhibition. Thumbnail image by Lindsey Byman / North by Northwestern

Bryan Northup sees a one-inch piece of black plastic on the sidewalk. “I need to pick that up,” he says.

The environmental artist and sculptor, who works from his home in Oak Park, recently combined his new and old pieces made from trash for the “You’re Not Real Seeing This” exhibit at the Evanston Art Center. His next exhibition, ‘Secret Ingredients’, will take place at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art from May 11 to July 7.

Northup collects plastic waste to build his abstract installations. His collaborator, environmental artist Kelsey Merreck Wagner, weaves recycled materials such as plastic bags and mesh clementine packaging into tapestries of various sizes. Northup wanted his exhibition to force viewers to confront how their everyday waste contributes to the global climate crisis.

No, Northup does not clean the plastic he uses in his work. “Dirt and gunk,” and probably even DNA, are part of the piece, he says. In 2015, he discovered his signature rolling technique when he used waste to create a sculptural replica of a sushi dish for a food-themed exhibition. To create the layers of faux seaweed, rice and raw fish, Northup cut cross-sections from rolled piles of soft plastic and foam. Until then he mainly worked with glass.

The self-proclaimed hoarder often returns home with bags full of treasure (trash).

“Eventually people will realize that making plastic was a bad idea,” Northup says. “Maybe they’ll stop doing it, and this work I’ve made is a record of a time when we didn’t really realize that.”

Bryan Northup stands in front of an art installation about single-use plastics in the food industry during his ‘Sea Inside’ exhibition. Photo by Lindsey Byman / North by Northwestern

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Where do you get the materials you use for your work?

If I wasn’t an artist, I’d be a hoarder. Before the concrete and steel installation, it was a sink in my house that we broke. I just couldn’t throw it away. I have a habit of collecting all the plastic that comes through our house. It goes to the studio and waits for me to roll it up like sushi. I’ve been doing this for almost ten years, people know I do it, and little bags are left on my porch, so I’m kind of like a garbage man in that regard.

Guide me through your creative process.

Color is important to me. People can identify with a color: they like it or they don’t, or it draws them in to look deeper. But I also like plain plastic rolls. I feel like that process mimics the processes of geology, such as the rolling of the crust and layers of the Earth. I end up with a bunch of components that I then arrange and create something that might be permanent or could be taken apart tomorrow because I don’t like how it looks.

Which project stands out for you?

After I did the “Sea Inside” exhibit at the International Surgical Museum right before the pandemic, I thought, “Okay, going into this pandemic, I’m just really glad I did that show.” Those were most of my finished pieces and strong work that I really wanted to show together.

I’m sure you’ve been bothered by the single-use masks and gloves due to the pandemic.

I have a wearable piece that I made with surgical masks, and of course I was walking around picking those up because people were just throwing them on the street. That sounds disgusting; I wore gloves when I did that. I laminated them between plastic layers so you don’t touch COVID masks or anything. It is a record of time.

“Sea Inside” made me a little uneasy. You say that your abstract installations blur the line between internal organs and tasty food, reflecting how society is saturated with plastic at a cellular level. What do you want people to feel when they view this exhibition?

Discomfort. An awakening of, “Oh, this is what we’re doing to ourselves, not just the planet. It is a circle that we are part of.” We are so numb to plastic, and it only adds to the climate crisis we are in.

What do you feel when you watch “Sea Inside”?

It disgusts me – it’s guilt and ecological despair. But I get satisfaction that something is being done with this material. This material is considered ephemeral. But that is not it. It’s been here a long time. So I think it’s critical to get that message across to people. I go back to Banksy’s quote: “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”

What can people expect from “Secret Ingredients,” your upcoming exhibition at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art in Chicago?

I work with artist Ginny Krueger, and she does a lot of work with found objects and assemblage. “You Can’t Really See This” was more focused, and I’m just going to put all this stuff in a space, which I imagine as a big cauldron, and mix it with Ginny’s work. And it becomes very textural and very colorful.

How has your experience creating art from discarded materials changed the way you move through life?

I want to tread the planet as lightly as possible. I had children during this whole process of changing my medium. I do it for them and take care of the planet. My son is always picking up plastic and making things with it. Much to my family’s dismay, I keep collecting. But I’m still plagued by the feeling that it’s not enough. I always try to compensate for it with what I make.