At the beginning of 2021, Jane Whitten started creating Consumed, a tangible, three-dimensional bar graph constructed from materials gathered in her immediate environment—her single-person household. It is the latest in a body of work that combines her love of baskets, the wide range of textile skills she has developed, and her passion and concern for the environment, climate change and the effects of material waste in our world.
The first piece of Jane’s that I encountered in person was woven into the railings at the entrance of the Mary E. Black Gallery in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was a bright, colourful, unexpected encounter that drew me closer to investigate the materials and to learn that this work was made using plastics found on beaches nearby. This is how Jane Whitten’s basketry silently communicates with us, and engages us.
Born in Australia, Jane has spent most of her adult life in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and, now, Prince Edward Island. Oceanside memories of childhood, and living alongside the ocean for most of her life, have made her deeply aware of the effect we, as human beings, have on marine life.
A lover of baskets since childhood, Jane made her first through the Nova Scotia Basketry Guild after moving to the province in the late 1980s. The guild provided a place for Jane to learn her craft, from local makers and workshops with international experts. She supplemented this knowledge with further learning outside the province, gathering a collection of techniques in much the same way as she gathers her materials.
“I was interested in the forms they were creating,” Jane says, “the materials they were experimenting with and the joy that shone through that.” She was encouraged to explore and to trust her intuition about materials and form, and she was instilled with a strong sense of honouring the skills passed on to her. “Work must be carefully made and carefully finished,” she says about her process.
“I’ve been trying to create pieces that share the essence of this marine environment, from sea stars to kelp to anemones to sea ice… The intent is to draw the audience in with something that’s familiar to them. As they enter its realm they discover that it’s made out of discarded materials, things that usually end up in the landfill. My hope is that they will engage with the bigger plastics picture… the whole plastic cycle from petroleum extraction to the processing to the manufacturing to the transportation to the distribution [of] plastic that’s impacting the environment globally and is especially wreaking havoc on the marine environment.”
Consumed is a series of coiled baskets made from plastic waste from Jane Whitten’s home. Each basket represents waste from one month, and lined up side by side they form a bar graph that clearly shows how Jane’s consumption changes through a year. In a Zero Waste Diary, she records the date, the product and the order in which discarded wrappings will be worked into the piece, including notes and comments that contribute to the story of this piece.
“This process has certainly made me more aware of what I’m consuming and how much I’m discarding. I’ve made an effort to buy larger packets of things I use a lot of to reduce the amount of wrappings. I’m constantly shocked and often say to myself, ‘If you open/eat this it has to go into the basket.’ I’ve had lots of responses and personal messages on social media. People are intrigued with the idea that something that beautiful is made up of my garbage. I’ve had direct messages or comments about if this is just from a one-person household, just think how tall they’d be if there were more people. I have had comments that the work has made them more conscious about the amount of plastic that they’re discarding. It’s all very scary because we know most of it ends up not being recycled but getting dumped in the landfills.”
Knitted Kelp started as a piece knit out of cassette and video tape. After discovering that there were toxic elements in this material that she didn’t want to expose herself to, Jane sought different materials. Plastic garbage bags—used to pack her belongings for her last move from Australia—cut into long strips became the alternative. “Not only had these pieces of kelp travelled halfway around the world over the ocean, they also told the story of the crisis kelp forests are in because of rising ocean temperatures caused by our dependency on the plastic cycle.”
Sea AnemonesSea Anemones is an interactive piece. “I’ve had to figure out the engineering behind them because they’re interactive—you can open them and close them the way an anemone does… It’s one that really engages the viewers, especially when they’re allowed to touch them.”
Sea Ice is a series inspired by colours, forms, noises, and impact of giant floating ice forms on the ocean. These pieces are formed using hard plastic packaging, ubiquitous in most households, collected by Jane and her friends and family: an ideal material because it is translucent, shiny, reflects light, and comes in colours (clear, white and blue) found in sea ice. To connect pieces Jane pierced holes around the edges and crocheted cool water blue fishing line (purchased) using a “fish scale” stitch to add blue lines frequently seen in chunks of ice.
“These hang from the ceiling close enough to touch so they make noise as they move around, create amazing shadows, adding even more dimension to the work. [They tell] the story of my concern for the arctic ice which is so crucial to keeping the earth in balance.”
All images courtesy of Jane Whitten.