A former Hitchin girls’ school pupil: weaving our story

PUBLISHED: 10:00 12 May 2016 | UPDATED: 13:45 16 May 2016

Jo Atherton with one of her creations, typically woven on a repurposed picture frame strung with fishing twine

Jo Atherton with one of her creations, typically woven on a repurposed picture frame strung with fishing twine

jo atherton

The rubbish thrown up on to our shores is the medium and the message in Jo Atherton’s striking tapestries. Rebecca Day reports on an artist weaving tales of our times

A collection of pieces picked up from our beachesA collection of pieces picked up from our beaches

For most people, man-made debris washed up on our shores is just an unsightly blot on the seascape. But to artist Jo Atherton, each discarded object is a modern-day artefact – providing the material for her to create striking woven artworks.

Atherton, who grew up in Blackmore End and went to Hitchin Girls’ School and today lives in Bedfordshire, combs the UK’s beaches for flotsam of different shapes and sizes and embeds them into wefts of found rope, fishing nets, driftwood and twine. Her looms are typically repurposed picture frames, strung with vertical lengths of fishing line.

Before her coastal exploits, it was visits to St Alban’s Verulamium Museum as a child that fired the artist’s imagination.

‘Looking at the many relics found locally, I loved to imagine who owned them and what they represented in another time,’ she says. ‘I often wondered how we would be represented to future generations and how the relics we leave behind would tell our story.’

Colourful rubbish recycled to create artColourful rubbish recycled to create art

Much like the mosaics, tools, pottery and jewellery from the Roman archaeological layers of St Albans, Atherton believes a layer of plastic will one day represent our throw-away society, given the longevity of this pervasive material. ‘We are leaving a trail of plastic in our wake, and through my work I aim to prompt discussion around these discarded fragments and what they will say about people living in the 21st century.

‘Working with found objects, be it a length of fishing line or a once-loved lost toy, the beach never ceases to provide a starting point for me to weave stories of our time. The sea curates orphaned objects and presents them to the shore; a temporary narrative replenished with each changing tide. I am fascinated by these unexpected and ignored fragments, imagining who they were important to in another time and place.’

As well as solo exhibitions in Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Cornwall, her unique style has attracted attention on the other side of the Atlantic, with Atherton’s flotsam weavings and prints displayed in Boston and New York. Reflecting on her shows in America, she says, ‘This is very important to me, given that much of the material I work with often originates in the USA or Canada. For my artwork to make this journey in reverse is an exciting way to highlight just how far discarded rubbish can travel and that an international approach is required if we are ever to come close to tackling the marine debris problem.’

Some of her most revealing finds are plastic tags, which were attached to lobster traps in the USA and Canada to manage fishing quotas.

‘These innocuous pieces of plastic may not sound very exciting, but each tag includes a year and location code: Newfoundland (NFLD) in Canada and Rhode Island (RI) and Maine (MA) in the USA are just some examples of the remarkable transatlantic origins of these tags. Many of these are washed ashore on our Atlantic coast, and given the information they hold, it is possible to trace the fishermen who lost the tags.’

In 2014, Atherton created Plenty More Fish in the Sea (detail left), a large tapestry that features a collection of lobster pot tags found on the coasts of Ireland, Wales and England.

Her international impact is certainly growing. This autumn, she will exhibit her tapestries in an international group exhibition at the Museum of Animals and Society in Los Angeles. The show, entitled Tangled, aims to increase awareness of the use of plastics and their negative implications for marine wildlife – discarded plastics, including fishing line and rope can entrap animals or enter the food chain with sometimes fatal consequences.

You won’t have to go to the US to see her work however; prints of Atherton’s creations will also be on show in the UK at Timeframe, part of the Fringe Arts Bath Festival taking place from May 27 to June 12, and at the Alternative Nature exhibition taking place at the Electric Picture House in Cheshire until May 21. And keep an eye out for her in this county at Hertfordshire Visual Arts events.

Atherton urges us that next time we see a piece of plastic washed up on the beach to pause, pick it up, and think about what it says about society, our values and what message we are leaving for future generations.

And don’t throw it back.

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