Most artists that use sushi imagery have purposefully selected the cuisine as something they want to incorporate into their artwork. Something unique to sushi piqued their interest and compelled them to explore it from their own unique perspective. Alicia Escott, however, began her interaction with the sushi world completely through happenstance.
A graduate of the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago, Escott began her art career as a plein air painter, but soon found herself unsatisfied. An activist at heart, Escott painted her pieces with an environmentalist bent, but didn’t feel that her viewers were interpreting it that way. Frustrated by this, Escott all but abandoned her painting and moved to San Francisco, intending to turn her back on her artistic side in favor of developing a career in sustainable business. This was not to be, however – perhaps the fates weren’t about to allow such a talented artist to rob us of a gift that we so desperately needed.
Looking for work and struggling to make ends meet, Escott found herself working at a grocery store that happened to house a sushi counter. At the end of the day, the sushi that hadn’t been sold was distributed to hungry workers or thrown out. This is the moment where Escott came face-to-face with her future medium – discarded plastic.
Escott saw potential in incorporating this cast-off material into her work, and began to create energetic seascapes and vibrant animal imagery as her paint splayed across the matte black plastic cradle of someone’s rainbow roll. Over time, Escott hit her stride and her work blossomed, belting out undeniable messages about the not-so-disposable nature of all that which we dismiss as “disposable.” Her work drives home the staggering reality of the truth behind grocery sushi packaging: the fact that a hungry Safeway patron’s nigiri combo has a life expectancy of about 20 minutes, while the container holding it – whose ostensible purpose was solely to custodian the fish and rice to their grisly end – will likely persist for tens of thousands of years.
Escott has utilized a number of different techniques in her work, including oils, pencil, and ink. Many of her pieces are composed on single pieces of plastic, while others, like her mind-boggling “A New Day,” are arranged on large grids — in this case, a rising sun and seascape splashing across thirty discarded sushi containers.
According to Escott, sushi has achieved an important place in her consciousness. “Fish really exemplify what I’m trying to communicate,” she says. “Consumers don’t know where they’re from, how they got here, or where they go… just like plastic.”
That’s not to say that Escott’s expertise is limited to this little wasabi-and-soy universe. She has a repertoire that draws on plastic in a multitude of forms, from discarded plastic bags and disposable containers to entire heavy-duty plastic sheets, every scrap of which was thrown away by its original owner.
In fact, packaging in all forms, even beyond the tangible, intrigue her and draw from her imagination a myriad of poignant and groundbreaking pieces. “Our whole lives are packaged,” Escott laments. “Even a national park is ‘packaged’ in a way to make it accessible and appreciable… plastic is the epitome of this, you know? It’s at once the most hygienic and the most ‘dirty’ thing.”
To express her perspective on the concepts of waste and packaging from a broader sense, Escott has created both massive and minuscule works, dwelling on detail and, most importantly, the ironic connection between her imagery and her material. She pours countless hours of work into the artistic amelioration of items that most people would leave crushed and forgotten in a garbage can or on a city sidewalk. In one of her pieces, several meticulously hand-rendered salmon struggle up a river that rushes along the creases of a crushed, discarded sushi lid. The plastic still bears a faded sticker that reads: “Salmon roll.” The salmon are frozen in time, rolling through whitewater that has been superimposed on the molted shell of one of their long-eaten relatives – a fish that, through the dubious miracle of plastic, has been frozen in time as well.
The impact of this juxtaposition is redoubled by Escott’s masterful ability to convey a critical message: this plastic waste is a tremendous threat to the health of oceanic ecosystems. As discarded plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, it forms “nurdles” – tiny particles that are invisible to the naked eye but that have the potential to persist in our environment for thousands of years. Nurdles find their way into streams and rivers which bear then onward until they reach the ocean. These microscopic poison pellets then saturate our waters and are subsequently devoured by unsuspecting filter-feeders. Countless animals are killed by nurdles ever year, starving to death, unable to fit any digestible food into their full stomachs. They are packed to the gills, as it were, with plastic.
When confronted about the true purpose of her work, Escott gets a impish look and the corner of her mouth curls up mischeviously. “I want to confuse the viewer,” she confesses. “I want to bring home this cognitive dissonance between the disposable and the perpetual. We at once accept these containers as ‘disposable,’ but at the same time, we’re aware that they will be around for thousands of years.”
Well, I’m certainly confused. As I write this, I’m about 30,000 feet above the Nevada desert, and I’ve just finished eating. My food was, predictably, encased in a black-and-clear disposable plastic service, #1 PET plastic on #6 polystyrene, accompanied by the ubiquitous clear plastic airline cup. But now that I’m finished with my meal, what do I do with the plastic? I ponder my situation, turning the problem over and over in my head. Given the continual failure among domestic airlines to incorporate recycling programs into their policies, anything I hand to the flight attendant for disposal is a strong candidate for nurdle-dom. So how can I ensure that this anachronistic reminder of a fruit and cheese plate that I barely tasted doesn’t contribute to the demise of our planet? How can I put the incredible longevity and persistence of my food’s erstwhile shield to good use?
I guess I’ll give it to Alicia.