Analysis

VIDEO: Breaking Free From Plastic, Returning to Earth

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Against the might of an economy organized around disposability and extraction, ceramics master Veronica Castillo and Society of Native Nations team up to reacquaint local families with ancient and intimate relations to clay, body, and earth.

Words: Marisol Cortez | Images: Greg Harman

If plastic was once the future—recall that iconic, ironic line from The Graduate—now it signifies the end of history.

Look no further than the five great gyres of garbage swirling in every ocean, birthing monstrous images of plastic-entangled turtles and seabirds with stomachs full of detritus. These are the images hanging on the walls of Galería EVA when we arrive for Volver a Tierra, a clay program funded by Society of Native Nations and led by fourth-generation ceramicist Veronica Castillo, a NEA National Heritage Fellow. We’re guests at the invitation of SNN’s Rosie Torres, who offered the three of us—Marisol, Greg, and two-year-old Wolfi—a spot in a class for families on how to mold and fire their own plates and cups. It’s an anti-disposability effort, an effort to restore relations to earthware not only as art form but as a less destructive habit of living.  

The work calls the bluff on recent attempts to recoup some of plastic’s progressive sheen by making petroleum products look artisanal, as in a sneaky ad campaign by the fossil fuel industry that supplies most of plastic’s base ingredients. For instance, “Look Beyond,” an ad campaign funded in part by the South Texas Energy and Economic Roundtable, profiles small business owners—often women, immigrants, Latinas—in a series of personal portraits of an undersung, entrepreneurial nobility. Two installments of this series, in fact, feature popular establishments that will be familiar to many San Antonio residents, including Chela’s Tacos on the upper end of the Strip and Southtown-based Garcia Art Glass. (For a deep dive into this particular ad campaign, see Greg Harman’s “Gracias a Petroleo: Fossil Fuel Ad Campaign Claims the Taco Truck.”)  

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But despite these ads’ evocation of the artistic and intimate, the rise of disposability has fundamentally meant a loss of intimacy with the material world. In Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash, social historian Susan Strasser has examined the ways industrialization meant “a throwaway culture replaced one grounded in reuse,” transforming our lived relationship to objects in the process.

As she argues, that throwaway culture emerged when mass production broke the link between household wastes and economic production. That turned a basically circular economy into a linear, one-way flow, wherein “materials and energy are extracted from the earth and converted … into industrial products and byproducts, which are sold[;] and into waste, which is returned to the ecosystem but does not nourish it.” In this way “trash and trashmaking” became central to economic activity, in that “the growth of markets for new products came to depend … on the continuous disposal of old things.”

These large-scale economic shifts in turn prompted a cultural shift in people’s intimate relations to materials—wood, clay, metal, soil, water, plants, stone—and the ecological landscapes that generated them. The increasing commercial availability of things previously homemade, for instance, resulted not only in the loss of a “kinesthetic knowledge of materials”—a knowledge of how things were put together and thus how they could be repaired, reused, or put to other purposes—but the sort of attachment to singular objects that discouraged their disposal. As the economy industrialized, we lost intimate knowledge and skills that reflected a broader psychological and corporeal distancing from ecological systems (and limits).

veronica castillo of galeria eva.
Veronica Castillo of Galeria EVA.

Castillo speaks to this in her interview when she describes how plastic, with its lure of convenience and ease, came to invade her home community of Izucar de Matamoros, a small town 90 miles south of México City. Where once her community had borrowed ceramic dinnerware for large celebrations, this custom disappeared once plastic plates, cups, and bottles appeared, hyped by “big companies and the media.” It was an ideological as much as material and social shift.

“Their minds [got] poisoned,” she recalls, “because that’s what was said, that it was an easier way of  living. … And it never came back, the essence of those communities.”

These multiple losses (earth, knowledge, social interdependence) are the broader context for the Volver a Tierra program, which not only seeks to challenge the dominance of disposability as ethos and material pollution, but to rebuild an embodied relation to earth via claywork. Volver is funded by Society of Native Nations, a member of the international Break Free From Plastic coalition. As part of its broader anti-plastics work, SNN and Castillo launched Volver in the summer of 2020, at the height of the pandemic, alongside a food program for the unsheltered community that serves weekly meals on reusable or biodegradable dinnerware. Already over 100 families have participated in Castillo’s clay workshops, according to SNN founder Frankie Orona (Tongva/Chumash).

With SNN long involved in local struggles against petrochemical and fossil fuel infrastructure, Orona recalls that the inspiration for Volver came from thinking about how to ease the social isolation of families during the pandemic, and at the same time ask:

“How do we teach environmentalism, but preventative environmentalism, right? Not just after the fact. How do we help the families come out of the house, come in a safe way, learn something–what we call deprogramming, from what society today has taught us is okay and appropriate, to reprogram ourselves with old traditional teachings, old ways that help us to understand how we can live more cohesively with Mother Earth in a more sustainable [and] healthier way.” 

Everything with Calmness

The tactile sensuality of working with clay does in fact quiet and open the mind. It’s almost shocking, then quickly delightful, for anyone accustomed to regarding vessels for eating and drinking via the non-relation of disposability. For two-year-old Wolfi it’s immediately enchanting, a relationship he already knows intuitively from his beloved Play-Doh. For each family participating, Castillo and her daughter have set up a worktable containing a block of clay, a large bowl of water, sponges for smoothing and moistening, tools for cutting and shaping. She shows us a technique, and then for the next hour and a half we try it out. Smooth Brazilian bossa nova plays as we work. There’s not much talking; people quickly become lost in thought. There is something contemplative or meditative about working with the clay. It relaxes you; it smoothes out your agitations and unevennesses.

We start with plates on our first visit. Castillo shows us how to shear a thick square of clay from the block of cool grey with a wire, then roll it into a smooth circle to lay over a finished plato hondo, which imparts its own shape. With another wire stretched taut on a metal handle, we trim the excess clay from the mouth of the bowl, dip our fingers into water and smooth, smooth, smooth the rim between thumb and forefingers.

We make cups the following week when we return. Vero shows us two methods: in the first, you scoop out a bite of clay and shape it into a sphere, then dig into it with your thumbs to create a cavity. Then you press out from the center of the cavity to create the shape of a wide mouthed coffee cup. If the clay is too thick there’s a tool formed from the shell of a coconut—imagine the shape of an eye cut from a spherical shell—which you can use to scoop out the extra, reducing the thickness and weight of the cup. Always you want to keep your hands moist, Vero tells us, because their heat will create cracks. If cracks do appear, wet your fingers and take a tiny piece of clay to repair them.

A body memory resurfaces of playing with “slip” in elementary school art class: I remember that about clay, its almost total revisability no matter what.

The second method for cups is to start by carving out a perfectly round circle the size and thickness of a hockey puck. That’s the base. Then you roll many snakes, form them into circles, and lay these circles atop one another at the base to form the sides of the cup. You can leave the rolls ridged or smooth them out. The first method is harder but faster, the second easier but slower. It doesn’t have to be perfect though, Castillo says. Each piece will have its own little imperfections, its character.

Angela Pardo exploring cups, method #2.

Secreted inside the embodied method, the handiwork, lies a profound theory of social transformation. It culminates in the centuries-long tradition of the Arbol de Vida, the polychromatic ecological sculpture Castillo’s family is known for. But it starts with “a plate … a cup—which, that’s the most simple, the most basic, to have that relationship—the clay and me. Or the earth and me. It’s the base to start from”: 

“A lot of people are so excited that they get frustrated—they can’t make a tree of life. So what do they do? They stop and never continue again. … But you have to go on and on and on until you achieve what you want to make. … You have to continue feeding that sensation, that seed; you have to continue pushing. That’s how change happens in the world. … That is the relationship between building and fighting and accomplishing. Everything is with patience, to be able to arrive where you want to go. Not to want to do everything all at once. Everything with calmness, everything with patience and the emotions to create it.”

Arbol de Vida detailing. Artwork by Veronica Castillo.

Though basic, the finished product of this slow, quiet, patient process nonetheless refutes an entire relation of no-relation to earth. In the simple fact that “clay does become earth again” while plastic “​​will never break down and become fertile,” we see the seed of a cultural “re-emerge[nce] and return” that answers the most critical question we face: “How are we going to survive in the future?”

Here Castillo presents a radically different vision of survival than the one slickly engineered by O&G marketing, which would have us believe that valuing immigrant ingenuity and labor or traditional artistry means fetishizing plastic objects—forks, credit cards, bottled water—for the magic of petroleum within. 

The Problem with Plastic is Petroleum

One of the most common tropes of mainstream environmentalism is that the problem of plastic is the problem of non-biodegradable garbage, with the solution greater individual responsibility for keeping waste out of sight and mind. Witness, for example, a recent ad by the San Antonio River Authority:

The ad is hugely creative and emotionally effective. At first it captivates us with familiar scenes of local waterways, then moves us with images of herons and turtles surrounded by post-consumer basura, then compels us with a clever visual device: watch as the tape rewinds to reveal the upstream story of how all that trash got into our beloved river. The camera follows a single (conspicuously unlogo’ed) styrofoam cup as it floats upriver, backs out of a storm drain, flies up into the bed of a truck speeding backwards. In the final scene, the cup flies from the bed back into the truck driver’s hand so that he can make a different choice, tossing it into garbage can instead. In this way, the moral of the story is about our personal responsibility for keeping plastic waste out of waterways. 

But suppose that ad had kept rewinding, back and back and back, to reveal where that cup came from before it reached the hand of the truck driver as a useful drinking vessel? In that case, we would have to point the finger not at ourselves, but at the companies  (*ahem* Whataburger) that distribute those convenient cups en masse. Or, farther upstream, at the companies that mass produce them—or the machinery for that mass production, like the Nissei plastics manufacturing company that just relocated its headquarters to San Antonio. Or, further upstream yet, the companies which refine petroleum into the byproducts used to manufacture those cups (*ahem* @ValeroEnergy). Or, furthest upstream, we would have to arrive at the churn of operators fracking and pumping the Permian Basin or Eagle Ford Shale—Andarko, Chesapeake, EOG, BHP Billiton, Lewis Energy Group, Kinder Morgan—and supplying petroleum to refineries. 

Ultimately, the problem with plastic is not simply the problem of non-biodegradable garbage. As with the roots of climate disruption, the problem with plastic is a profit-based economy organized around extraction of fossil fuels. As Society of Native Nation’s Orona states, “Most people don’t know that 99% of plastics are made out of fossil fuels.” 

The solution thus lies not in individuals doing a better job at making plastic “go away,” but rather in governments and corporations keeping fossil fuels in the ground. Not a guy at a gas station, then, virtuously throwing his styrofoam cup into the trash. Not even a guy at a gas station opting for the recycle bin instead. For as Orona points out, “Our concept of recycling was created for us to psychologically feel better about continuing to pollute, continuing to use the things that we use that make our lives convenient but is unhealthy and damaging to our Mother Earth and our future. It’s just a false concept. There’s no real solution yet, other than breaking completely free of it and finding new methods, new ways of living and surviving without the fossil fuels.”

In the PSA of my dreams, the final scene, the furthest upstream solution, looks like kids on Friday school strikes or Native nations marching on DC. 

Or maybe, just maybe, it looks like teaching families to make their own cup and plate out of earth—a tiny, intimate act of return allayed against an entire economy organized around convenience and disposability. 

Everything with calmness, everything with patience and the emotions to create it. 

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