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Maryland Woman Perfects Art of Recycling Plastic Bags

  • Faiza Elmasry

Allita Irby turns plastic bags into art.

About three years ago, the mixed media artist recognized the potential of the plastic bags her daily newspapers came in.

“I was taking the newspaper out and I felt the texture of these bags,' she said. "They were soft and the idea occurred to me. I just looked down and realized it takes three to make a braid. I'll just put a few staples in here just to keep it from unraveling."

She's been using them to create her pieces ever since.

Art of recycling

Beside the beautiful colors and texture, there is another reason she recycles the bags in her artwork.

“It keeps the plastic bags out of the environment,” she said. “So many times you see the plastic bags on trees, at the side of the road that people have just thrown down. Sometimes these bags find their way into nature, which is very harmful and it can cause death to some animals.”

Before that, Irby used natural materials like dried flowers, botanical and feathers.

“I'd take these things and I'd bundle them in fabric and tie them up with leather to keep them together," she said.

In all her works, Irby reveals elements of her Native American heritage and identity. Growing up in Oklahoma gave her a chance to learn and appreciate her ancestors’ art and love for nature.

“Navaho Bundles” is an example. Irby used the bags to replicate a Navaho hair style, in which a long braid is looped and tied almost like a bow. “I took the piece and looped it back onto itself and secured it with a tie and put them on an acrylic painted board and framed in a shadow box."

Another example is “Plaits and Ponytails,” a collection of her work now on display at the African American Museum and Cultural Center in Prince George's County, Maryland, not far from Washington, D.C..

Museum curator Jon West-Bay says he selected Irby’s collection because of its beauty and uniqueness. He says he likes how Irby weaves together plastic bags to represent braided hair and create abstract lines in her piece. The collection, he says, has attracted people's attention.

“People always think of it as one thing when they’re far away," he said. "And when they get up close, they see it’s plastic bags. And it always sparks a discussion.”

Sharing techniques

Amazed at how she turns trash to treasure, some neighbors asked Irby to teach them how to design and create their plastic bag artworks. Irby says it was a great opportunity for her to share some skills and thoughts with her community. And her neighbors' feedback is totally positive.

“I think it’s fascinating; it's wonderful," her neighbor Charlotte Hogan said. "I do plan to share with my seniors at my church.”

Aleta Mayer says she's inspired by the artist. "I’ve never given any more thought to what to do with a plastic bag. This is definitely different.”

The idea of reusing the bags fascinates Shirley Watts, a former Girl Scout leader. She announced, “I want to make a masterpiece that I can put in a frame and put it up on my wall and then I know that I did it.”

Allita Irby says it was amazing to see how resourceful and creative her neighbors are.

“I think we’re all artists really, and there is beauty all around us. All you have to do is open your eyes and bring the outside in."

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