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Powerful Transformations: Chelsea Wrightson gives new purpose to plastic waste, reimagining it as molds for artistry

“Legacies of our human fossils,” 2020, by Chelsea Wrightson, acrylic, spackling, textured spray paint on plaster of Paris, 31-by-11 inches.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Chelsea Wrightson alchemizes waste into altars.

The Albuquerque artist collected single-use plastic, transformed it into molds, then filled them with plaster to create her “Altars of Imperfection/Quarantine Visions,” on view at the Harwood Art Center, harwoodartcenter.org, through Sept. 11.

These bas-relief oil paintings made from the resulting castings become created fossils within an imaginary landscape.

“I’ve been ruminating for a while about our plastic waste,” Wrightson said. “I listened to this podcast called ‘For the Wild.’ ”

“The beauty of everyday things,” 2020, by Chelsea Wrightson, oil, colored pencil, spackling, wood, textured spray paint on plaster of Paris, 31-by-11 inches.

The podcast discussed the ways in which natural systems have adjusted to plastic because it never disappears. The scientists debated whether or not to reclaim a floating ocean island of plastic because fish and other sea creatures had adopted it as a home.

“Quarantine Vision 1,” 2020, by Chelsea Wrightson, graphite and colored pencil on paper, 11-by-7 inches. (Courtesy of Aziza Murray)

“The same thing is happening to humans,” Wrightson said.

Plastic waste is rooted in the industrial revolution and promulgated by advertising, she added.

“You need this new thing that’s wrapped in plastic so it’s safe,” she said. “Our natural instinct is to take from the earth and put back in the earth.”

As Wrightson scanned her own collection of plastic waste, she thought, “This is just a vessel; this is something I can pour into.”

“These are really beautiful; somebody designed these,” she added. “Some of them remind me of 1920s architecture, like moulding. I liked the idea of transforming my trash into treasure.”

Although it sounds backward, she begins with the frame, setting the molds and pouring in the plaster.

“A future full of yesterdays,” 2020, by Chelsea Wrightson, oil and colored pencil on plaster of Paris, 42-by-16 inches. (Courtesy of Aziza Murray)

“It’s collecting this collective grief and shifting into something more positive,” Wrightson said.

She composed “The beauty of everyday things,” 2020, using oil, colored pencil, spackling, wood and textured spray paint on plaster of Paris.

“Quarantine Vision 3,” 2020, by Chelsea Wrightson, graphite and colored pencil on paper, 11-by-17 inches.

“The yellow table in the center is sort of an altar,” she said. “The forms are like early 20th century moulding.”

“A future full of yesterdays,” 2020, resembles an Italian fountain.

“They all start out as these minimal blank slates,” the artist said.

“The last words of the universe have yet been spoken,” 2020, reflects her interest in the work of the late astrophysicist Carl Sagan. Its upper and lower black diamond shapes are portals or cosmic windows to the universe, she said.

“There’s an interconnectedness between all of us.”

“The last words of the universe have yet been spoken,” 2020, by Chelsea Wrightson, oil and spackling on plaster of Paris, 42-by-16 inches.

When we enter a dark cave, our eyes struggle to see shapes and forms so that the brain has something to focus on, Wrightson explained.

“It was the shutting down of society, everything was refracted,” she added.

When the pandemic shuttered her Harwood Art Center studio, Wrightson started making works on paper with graphite and colored pencil.

“I was just at home with my paper and pencil on my kitchen table,” she said, “and I’d wait for my 3-year-old to take a nap.”

The artist cites the painters Agnes Pelton, Agnes Martin and the Swiss artist Emma Kunz as influences for their exploration of spirituality in art.

“They laid the foundation for talking about the mystical,” she said. “They laid the groundwork and were not really recognized until recently.

“Art is a very spiritual practice,” she added.

Wrightson has lived in Albuquerque since the age of 6 and received her BFA in printmaking from the University of New Mexico. She worked at the Richard Levy Gallery for six years.

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