When Tara de la Garza was flipping through a book about the northern islands of Hawaii, she came across a horrifying image: a decomposing albatross, its stomach completely full of plastic.
"It really set something off in me," the Menlo Park artist said. "Even in the farthest corners of the Earth, our human impact has been so detrimental, especially the impact of plastics and the lie we've been told that plastics are being recycled."
While she's long been interested in waste management, conservation and using recycled and scavenged materials in her artistic practice, de la Garza found a particular passion for raising community awareness of plastic consumption through her Plastocene series (the title is wordplay on how she imagines future archaeologists might view our current plastic-plagued epoch).
The latest in the series, "Monument to Plastocene IV," is installed in downtown Redwood City's Art Kiosk through July 5.
It's part sculpture, part archaeology and part ecology lesson. The current installation boasts lamps, light tubes, cylindrical stools and pillars made out of consumer plastic waste. The work is best seen at night, when the illuminated work is especially striking.
"Her minimalist forms contain a maximalist aesthetic of excess," as the press release for the exhibition states.
For the Plastocene project, de la Garza solicited donations of plastic packaging and waste via word of mouth and by posts on neighborhood social network NextDoor.
"I had a box in front of my house and asked people to put their single-use plastic in. Trader Joe's is my favorite. I don't shop there because of the plastic waste, but their packaging is beautiful," she said. "I encourage neighbors and friends to use less by them giving it to me and realizing the amount they're consuming. It's a very grassroots intervention."
De la Garza, who grew up in Australia and lived in New York before moving to the Peninsula, is also a member of Palo Alto's city-sponsored Cubberley Artist Studio Program, with studio space in Cubberley Community Center.
"There's no way I'd be making any of the sculptures I'm making without Cubberley. It's so great to have a space where I can really get messy and big and make some more substantial three-dimensional work," she said, adding that she and her husband have spent the spring mostly at home, along with their 9-year-old daughter, so being able to finish and install "Monument to Plastocene IV" has provided her with a welcome bit of creative time.
She's an active member of the Redwood City arts community, where she hopes to help bring a "world-class art center" someday. She spoke enthusiastically about finding her place in the local scene thanks to both the Cubberley program and Redwood City's recent arts awakening.
"It's really positioned itself as this kind of creative hub and I think that it's so fantastic," she said. "It took me a while to find an art community, to see how I could fit in and make it a more vibrant place. I really feel like that is part of my mandate, to make art accessible."
The Art Kiosk installation, which is curated by Fung Collaboratives and supported by the city and the Redwood City Improvement Association, was delayed due to the COVID-19 outbreak that has shuttered or moved online most cultural events for the past months.
But because of its outdoor, glass-enclosed setting, the space seems to be a fairly safe way to view art while strolling in the increasingly busy downtown area. Visitors are asked to maintain social distance, wear masks and avoid touching the glass while viewing the piece.
De la Garza was also hesitant to install her work in the midst of social unrest over racial injustice, not wanting to appear tone-deaf with an exhibition that doesn't address that issue.
"A couple of weeks ago I was there at the protest and the space was empty. It felt strange to me to be showing my work there at this time," she said. "I kept postponing it because my message is about environmental justice but it doesn't really speak to the moment. I wanted to be sensitive to that, so it was kind of with a heavy heart that I installed the show."
She also wanted to keep the focus of this work on environmental issues rather than try to shoe-horn in a tie to recent protests over police brutality.
"I wanted to be careful that I wasn't pivoting as a way of exploiting that, in a way. I didn't want to just get on the bandwagon for the sake of it," she explained. "Since George Floyd's death and the whole (Black Lives Matter) movement really getting strong, I've spent a lot of time doing some personal soul searching and reading books, educating myself as best I can on my white privilege."
She's admired the nearby pop-up murals adorning the boarded-up business of downtown speaking out for racial justice alongside her environmental message.
"I'm really glad that Redwood City is talking about what's going on right now," she said. "It's a nice juxtaposition that they're both talking about important issues. Both are relevant in the long term as well as the short term."
In addition to participating in the upcoming Silicon Valley Sculpture Fair, to take place on the Menlo College campus, de la Garza said she's interested in taking on the issue of the discriminatory practice of redlining in a new, yet-to-be determined project.
"We almost didn't move into this house, because when we originally got the document that outlines the history of the property, there was a line that said 'You can only sell your house to a Caucasian,'" she recalled. "It was very confronting to me and my husband, who is Hispanic. It was very painful.
(For) my next project I'm going to work on trying to get my community involved to get all of that racist rhetoric removed from all of our deeds, essentially," she said. "I haven't worked out how that's going to manifest as an artwork but it's something that's really important to me."