Cultivating a sustainable creative practice: LTTS interviews Sian Dorman

Sian Dorman is a Sustainable Costume Designer and Set Installation Artist who works with waste materials. See her work here and follow her on Instagram at @siandormantextiles. Sian also took part in our Sustainable and Ethical Fashion Day Collaborative video

Sian Dorman and her most recent installation: 'Quarantine Jungle'

How have you established your artistic practice?

I first became interested in sustainability within the Fashion and Textiles industry around the age of 16 when we were taught about it in school. My initial projects were based around repurposing second-hand textile items such as curtains and bedsheets to make into clothes.I began my career by studying an Art Foundation specialising in Textiles Design at the London College of Fashion and then completed a BA in Textiles Design specialising in mixed media at UAL: Chelsea College of Art & Design.

Throughout my degree, I worked on a number of projects based around various areas of sustainability before choosing to focus on minimising waste and design activism. It was the platform Textiles Environment Design Research which sparked my inspiration to explore design for cyclability, to reduce energy and water use, and to reduce the need to consume.

What fascinates you about found materials and 3D forms?

Coming from a working-class background, being frugal and resourceful was just something my parents naturally taught me from an early age, and because of this I never understood how people around me were able to be so careless and unaware of their impact on the environment. From as far back as I can remember, I have always 'built' structures, whether it be using Lego, K'nex or loo roll tubes as a child or discarded items and gifts from nature as an adult. I rarely feel as if the piece is complete unless I transform it in a textural or three-dimensional way.

Because of this, my portfolio was filled with abstract textiles and upcycled waste sculptures. At this point, I struggled to understand their 'purpose', which is what led to my movement into wearables. However, I wasn't interested in working to the strict production rate that fashion is bound to, or the idea of releasing full collections regularly as my material choices limit the amount that I can create, so I began working in costume. I love the endless possibilities which come from taking abstract experimentation created from discarded items and making it something wearable. More recently I have decided to work on my own briefs more and move back into abstract sculpture.

You use recycled materials in your art, why is this important for your practice?

My initial interest in incorporating waste items into my works was to be more resourceful with the things I have available and challenge myself to use household items that you would never think to place within a textile context into my samples. The more that I began creating with found objects, the more thrilling I found the experience. I'd find myself searching out interestingly shaped, textured or coloured materials.

Alongside this, my knowledge of sustainability was growing more and more as facts and figures were released surrounding the harm that waste causes to earth, specifically plastic; ocean plastic, water contamination, and landfill. As an artist, it can be extremely easy to be reckless with resources and not take on responsibility for your relationship to the wider world because you can be stuck in a tunnel vision of only your project. All of these issues strengthened my beliefs and reasoning behind why I should continue this path and continually be reflective of my relationship to the natural environment.

“This challenges the idea that art is something only the higher classes can be a part of, instead using recyclable material makes art production accessible to all.”

Now, instead of going out and buying new materials, I prefer reusing something that has already ended its lifespan, which means it is already in its secondary or tertiary form of life when I am creating it into something else. This increases the artworks sustainability component but it makes it more accessible and affordable. I hope to inspire others to look around them and see creative uses for things that they already have in their environment. This challenges the idea that art is something only the higher classes can be a part of, instead using recyclable material makes art production accessible to all.

We love the use of colour and strong structural forms in your work. How does the natural environment inspire your work?

Colour and I have an interesting relationship, I tend to drift from vibrancy to monochrome quite rapidly from project to project. As I use a lot of found materials colour is not always a choice so I am unable to be fastidious a lot of the time. If the material is found in large quantities or gathered gradually over a period of time then I am able to be more selective about it, as I was with the 'Quarantine Jungle' and 'Invasion of Space' collections.

I take a huge amount of inspiration from nature. I think most people do in some way; it's hard not to as it is so incredibly beautiful. 90% of the time my ideas are informed by three-dimensional forms, texture, and colour schemes seen in nature.

I worked on costumes and props for a psychological thriller a few years back which was inspired by H. R. Giger and the 1980s Alien. Even though the ideas surrounding the brief were sci-fi influenced and I used various man-made solid structural scrap material including metal and plastics, my personal inspiration came from the shapes and textures of beetles and other insects.

Although the mood of each of my projects are contrasting, they have all been hugely influenced by the natural environment.

“I take a huge amount of inspiration from nature. I think most people do in some way; it's hard not to as it is so incredibly beautiful.”

Your most recent installation, 'Quarantine Jungle' uses bright, colourful flowers made from rubbish materials. What message speaks out from this work in the time of Covid-19?

'Quarantine Jungle' is a collection of flowers that have been made from collected plastic waste, and the forms and imagery are modeled after certain things in nature. I wanted an extravagant tone so I looked at mostly tropical plants from photographs I had taken at Kew Gardens.

I began working on this collection during the first week of the lockdown in March to encourage people to pause and be more present within the world and nature, especially as lockdown begins to ease and we slowly return to 'normality'. For the first time in our history, humans have had to pause from their fast-paced lives and I have noticed how this has temporarily disrupted our capitalist society in the west, by reducing our consumerist habits; as people are less able to afford to buy due to loss of jobs or reduced government furlough. This has changed how people are thinking about the way in which we live our lives, raising awareness of how much we consume and play a role in the production of waste.

The project re-purposes all sorts of plastic products we consume, including drinks bottles, shampoo, carrier bags, plastic beads, and transforms them into flowers. These represent summer, nature, and symbolise hope and growth as they bloom and blossom. The virus has also given Mother Nature the chance to replenish. It is helping people to be more present in their surroundings in nature, especially as for most of us, the only green space we have had access to in the past three months has been our local park. We are seeing positive change, air pollution has fallen, toxic fumes have fallen to their lowest level since the 1950s, wildlife is returning to our streets and air traffic in the UK has fallen by around 90%.

Your work blurs the boundaries between sculpture and fashion, do you think wearing your pieces could be a form of activism in itself?

Yes, fashion is a form of self-expression which is a kind of protest in itself, so in that respect wearing statement pieces can definitely be seen as a form of activism, just as not wearing a particular item can also be seen as taking a stand for your beliefs. In the same way that not wearing fur, leather, or fast fashion brands which are known to use sweatshop labour and inhumane working environments, wearing items that have come from sustainable sources using recycled materials as I do is unquestionably activism.

“My principal aims always stay the same: design to reduce waste, design for cyclability, and design for ethical production.”

I'd describe a lot of my pieces as avant-garde experimental ideas that have been exhibited or worn in performative circumstances amongst other methods of art such as music, dance, and spoken word literature all speaking with the undertones of activism in politics and climate change. I work with a number of clients, many of whom are other creatives who employ me for the purpose of creating wearable art that speaks out about various sustainability topics or who are arguing for societal change. My main regular collaborators are Butoh dancer Mai Nguyen Tri, musician Belle Scar, and singer-songwriter Livia Rita. So yes, many people choose to wear my work as a form of embodiment to express problematic environmental issues.

Is it important for artists to be activists?

More artists need to engage in the act of 'doing' by using art as a communication strategy that addresses political and social change. We aren't large enough to tackle everything and make changes by ourselves but by looking to and working with the local community you can make small changes there. For me, because every single project I take on is completely unique, I know that the sustainable aims will change depending on my goal for the outcome. But my principal aims always stay the same: design to reduce waste, design for cyclability, and design for ethical production.

How can artists make their own practice more sustainable?

  • Figure out your relationship to consumption and take some accountability for your personal consumer actions by finding ways in your everyday life to reduce waste.

  • Use the materials and equipment that you already own before purchasing new stock.

  • Look to your immediate environment and allow what you already have around you to inspire your artwork, and use your everyday items in the home as objects you create with including waste.

  • If there still seems to be a need to purchase new material, question whether a variation of the idea can work in a different colour, slightly denser, lighter or stiffer fabric, can you create a new idea based on what you already have?

  • Reflect on your relationship to the local community and the natural world to help source objects for you and your work, use their waste, and have some kind of mutual accountability discussion.

  • Finding your own 'happy place' in sustainability is key here, Once you establish what your personal aim and purpose is, you will find it easier to achieve your goals.

  • Find out how to be more sustainable within the fashion and textiles industry at Textiles Environment Design research (TED)

Interview by Louder Than The Storm Events Lead Mattie O'Callaghan


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