Thirza Schaap on Artivism

Somewhere along the coast of South Africa, you may run into Thirza Schaap, collecting discarded bottles, shopping bags and other plastic waste that cover the beaches in her hometown. Thirza is a photographer and artist hailing from the Netherlands, where she worked in the demanding world of advertising, but has since traded in her bustling city life for a life in the lush landscapes of Cape Town. For several years now, Thirza has dedicated her life to fighting against plastic pollution. Through her project Plastic Ocean, she continues to tell the story of the devastating amount of plastic waste in this world.

First off, how are you today?

“Today I had Holly over in the studio for her school project, to talk about Plastic Ocean. I am happy to see that young people – she’s only thirteen – are becoming increasingly aware of the current problems we’re facing in plastic pollution and are getting involved in it to raise awareness as well.”

Plastic Ocean is your main art project, started to raise awareness around pollution and initiate a dialogue about plastic waste and mass consumerism. You’ve been working on Plastic Ocean for these last few years. What do you ultimately hope to accomplish with it? 

“Plastic Ocean combines sculpture with photography and examines our continuously changing relationship with plastics and the increasing (and sometimes overwhelming) presence they have in our lives. With Plastic Ocean, I hope that people will start to make the right choices every day when it comes to single-use plastics – which is simply to not use it.”

You are an activist artist, or ‘artivist’, someone who uses art to fight for the causes they believe in. How did your path go from being, I guess, a ‘regular’ photographing artist to now being an artivist?

“I started picking up ocean plastic on the beaches one day and I photographed the objects in what I thought were beautiful compositions. But at the same time there was this paradox because essentially, these objects were discarded items and there was an ugliness in finding plastic waste on beaches. I continued doing this as a project and eventually decided to make a life mission out of it.”

So stumbling on those polluted beaches eventually triggered something in you. Do you think it shaped you as the artist you are today? 

“Yes I think my work as an artist comes from frustration and the unbelief of the dazzling amount of plastic I found on those beaches. And I just felt the urge to be part of a change – a movement – and to do something within my own capability.”

Your sculptures are aesthetically compelling and beautiful to look at. When you’re working with an important theme such as environmentalism, how do you balance art with it? And where is the line between activism and art?

“I guess the subject is activism and it’s the execution that creates the art.”

You’ve created several sculptures over the years. Can you walk us through the creation process? How and where do you start?

“It depends. I work very intuitively. So for instance, I often work on more sculptures at the same time. And often, the sculpture that gives me the strongest emotional response is the sculpture that I’ll continue working on. And when I’m photographing my one-minute compositions, I often only see the meaning of the work when I am back behind my computer. When I’m creating, I have a moment when I know it is either there or it isn’t. If it is there, I am touched, I can feel the emotions in my body and the work moves me. It can be triggered by the fragility of the subject, the visual balance, the composition or the color combinations. When this happens, I am in my meditative state of mind.”

What do you think are current challenges the world is facing? And how are you dealing with it?

“It feels like the world is telling us something and we don’t want to listen. Personally I like to turn more towards nature and the power of the body and mind. It can be a long walk on the beach or something as simple as staring at a little bug in the garden or even dipping in ice cold water and meditation. In general I think the moment you take the time to truly see and experience things, that’s when you're going to see the world in so much detail and you have a new understanding within your close surroundings.”

Wnat is the key to a clean and green earth?

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