It’s infecting art: COVID and single use objects highlighted in new art prize (excerpt)

By Julie Power, Sydney Morning Herald
July 30, 2021 — 6.37am

Sydney artist and designer Ruth Downes wears a collar of masks that she made to illustrate the impact on the environment of single-use items. Photo: James Brickwood.

Artist Ruth Downes first tried to make wearable art with used face masks; those seen on the sides of roads or trapped in branches, where they appear to grow like leaves.

“I was playing with them, thinking, ‘This is a shocking amount of waste.’ They were grotty, and discoloured and they are not very healthy,” she said.

It grossed her out. She figured if it wasn’t good for her, it would also gross out visitors to the inaugural Northern Beaches Environmental Art and Design Prize when it opens after the Sydney lockdown.

A finalist in the contest, Downes decided to use new masks to create a fragile neckpiece – a kind of Elizabethan ruffle – out of 24 new masks. They were a bargain at $4.55 compared with the high prices last year, she said.

“It’s body adornment for the age of the consumption,” said Downes, an artist, designer and sculptor for 30 years who lives at Dee Why on Sydney’s northern beaches. COVID had created an avalanche of single-use products destined for landfill, she said.

Her entry, Masking the Problem, includes matching earrings made from mask cords.

Scientists warn they will choke fish if they get in waterways. Downes also made a pandemic fascinator, a hat piece made from other masked waste.

Single-use face masks are saving lives, but many are already ending up in oceans. About 129 billion face masks are used globally every month, about 3 million a minute, researchers said in the scientific journal Frontiers of Environmental Science & Engineering.

Most disposable face masks are made from plastic microfibres, the researchers said.

They reported that the amount of disposable masks used globally was on a similar scale to that of plastic bottles, which are estimated to be 43 billion a month, yet there is little guidance for the public on the best way to dispose of them.

The environmental threat of single-use products is highlighted by many of the 228 finalists. Chosen from 826 entries for the prize, they range from wearable design to sculpture and painting.

Read the full Sydney Morning Herald Article here