Meet the woman creating art out of Thames rubbish

by ALEXANDRA BOUDREAULT-MANOS

What do an Uzi, a wooden cross and a Victorian shoe sole have in common?

They’ve all been picked off the shore of the Thames by Maria Arceo.

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Arceo is the artist behind the Thames Plastic project, which turns plastic chucked into the river into art.

Started in September 2016, the project aims to show Londoners the magnitude of plastic debris entering rivers and eventually making its way into seas and oceans.  

Originally from Santiago de Compostela, Arceo moved to London in 1984 to learn English. She completed an undergraduate degree in Fine Arts at Camberwell College of Arts and an MA in Art and Design at Goldsmiths.

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After her graduation, Arceo taught art to schoolchildren part-time.

“During my time teaching, I realised that I couldn’t do things halfway. It’s all or nothing for me.”

Her project is the embodiment of that expression.

Arceo spent years picking rubbish up from the shore of the Thames during her free time. Her self-proclaimed “plastic mania”, however, was triggered during a clean-up when she discovered the sole of a Victorian shoe.

“I realised how long things stay in the riverbed. The river is vomiting out everything we put into it to show us that it cannot handle the waste.”

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Seeing the pollution accumulate with her own eyes, Arceo realised something had to be done.

“No matter how clean a beach or riverbank looks, I always end up filling multiple bags with plastic waste.”

“To the untrained eye, the only real plastic on a beach is the colourful bits of plastic; bottles, bags, labels. But there is plastic everywhere, and in tiny pieces only millimetres wide, in tremendous quantities.”

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Arceo has had her fair share of surprises while combing the shores, from getting stuck up to her knees in sinking sand, to finding an Uzi pistol in a plastic bag and having an entire police station shut down when she tried to bring it in.

Once she picks up enough plastic from the shore Arceo brings it back to her storage space in Canada Water. She then labels each bag with the date, and documents where its contents were collected.

Bag by bag, the items are washed, separated into categories, counted, recorded, and stored in a grid formation, ready to be transformed into colourful sculptures. 

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Once complete, Arceo’s art shows the place of humans and man-made materials on the earth.

She pulls out a photo of one of her favourite pieces.

“It’s two sets of footprints; one made of porcelain, and one cast out of a metal mould of a shoe sole I found,” she laughs, and asks her group of volunteers to suggest titles.

“Naming my art can be as difficult as making it because of the heavy message I am sending.  Regular art tends to be a bit pretentious and obscure but this project has to be obvious and striking to get the message across.”

Other pieces are more scientific. One consists of several layers of multicoloured plastic in the form of the Earth’s crust. The plastic layers represent what Arceo believes rocks will look like hundreds of years from now.

Ultimately, Arceo wants her sculptures to act as something of a message in a bottle for future generations.

“I want people to cut them open and be able to understand the chemical composition of the years during which this project was running.”

She hopes that by the time this happens in 500 years, the Earth’s rivers will be clean, and the only reminder of plastic pollution will be what is left inside her art.

Arceo is currently working on an installation for Somerset House, which will be open to the public in June. You can find out more at https://www.thamesplastic.com/.

All photos by Alexandra Boudreault-Manos