As a College of Charleston undergrad, Kim Thomas noticed how much plastic washed up or was left on the  beach. It bothered her then, and it bothers her now. “We’re finding microplastics throughout the world, even in places humans don’t live. As I parent, I wonder what kind of planet we’re leaving our kids,” she says. 

That deep-rooted concern for the environment led to her first sculptural experiments during her master of fine arts work at Memphis College of Art. Though she’d dabbled in different mediums, Thomas eventually decided to focus her art on environmental issues, specifically plastic. “Plastic is both problematic and cheap or free, so plastic bags became my main material,” she says. 

For her first project in 2010, she raided her friends’ stashes of bags kept under sinks or in pantries and garages. Then she cut the bags into strips, looped them together, and started crocheting. “I learned to crochet when I was eight, but easily picked it back up again and just started making these crazy organic forms.”

Thomas’s large abstract and biomorphic sculptures and wall hangings demand viewers to confront their relationship with plastics. “When I made the first pieces, the feedback I got was, ‘This is a big issue, you need to work bigger.’ So I did.” One of her largest pieces to date, Mass 2, measures nearly nine feet tall and more than five feet wide. 

While most of the plastic Thomas uses is in earthy blacks, browns, and whites, the random strands of industrial red, blue, and yellow remind the viewer that this is anything but an organic work of art. Though the strands are crocheted, they feel tangled and fused by time and tide. “I am particularly interested in the way the forms mimic our consumption and our relationship to pollution, which spreads over and suffocates the world around us, just as plastics become entangled in the environment,” she says.

In the spirit of calling people in instead of calling them out, Thomas keeps her work purposefully abstract, so it’s still open to interpretation. “It’s nice to look at, but you can’t deny the material used,” she explains. 

Today, the art teacher at Cane Bay High School incorporates different kinds of plastic, from bags to bubble wrap, packaging, and mailers. After she gathers her mountain of materials, she flattens everything out, folds it, cuts it, then loops it into a single strand to create something like a big ball of yarn. The process is laborious; creating a soccer-ball-sized sphere of plastic takes at least 14 hours. However, Thomas finds working with a material that has caused her so much frustration helps lessen her anxiety. “In the end,” she says, “I want people to see that the world we live in is really complex and beautiful and so worth protecting.”  —Robin Howard