Creating art from waste is one way artists channel their inner activist, and Marin-based artist Tess Felix uses her pieces to bring attention to the plastic pollution crisis that has a choke-hold on our oceans. Recently featured at the de Young Open, her works capture her subject’s character with thousands of pieces of marine debris, collected by hand at Marin beaches, and layered and pasted on oil painted canvas with glue. Portraits in her Eco (Ocean) Hero Series include those of personal friends, commission pieces, and notable ocean advocates like Jack Johnson and Kelly Slater.
Growing up between Mill Valley and Muir Beach, where her father built the Pelican Inn, her connection to the ocean has always been strong and fostering her desires to save it. She is a life-long creative and when not assembling her portraits she is a hair and make-up artist. Her sustainability mission with her pieces is to bring consciousness to our everyday use of plastics and the impact they are having on our marine environments. Here is our conversation.
What first inspired you to bridge your love for the ocean and art?
In 2010, there was a giant storm and high tides that seemed to churn up every piece of plastic in the delta, flush it out of the Golden Gate, and wash it onto Stinson Beach. One day, while walking my dog, the beach was completely covered in color — plastic color. I had never seen anything like it before or since. I immediately thought this was horrible and scary, and, at the same time, it looked to me like a mosaic. I was inspired to pick up color, start gluing it down, and make pictures with it. My hair salon clients would see the mosaic-type portraits I was putting together and liked them, so I kept going. Now it’s 2024, so that was a long time ago. When I started, no one else was doing this kind of work, and now it’s really popular. The pieces are still difficult, and I wonder why I do it, but I get a lot of satisfaction from doing it.
Where did you get your start? What was your art background before you started with marine debris?
My art background is at home. My parents have influenced me; they were both creative. My father was a graphic artist who always encouraged us to draw, and my mom was a hair designer. I haven’t had any formal art training, but I’ve taken a few art classes about things that interest me at the time. Pretty much, I’m self-taught, I suppose.
What do you hope crosses someone’s mind when they see your art?
When you look at my art from a distance, it looks like a painting, but once you close up, you see what it really is, and I love that aspect of it. I’m more of an artist and a painter than an environmentalist. My environmentalism started as a byproduct of my art when I did research and discovered what the great Pacific garbage patch was. I hope when people get up close, they are alarmed and notice that there are all these single-use plastic throw-away things that we take advantage of every single day. There is just so much unnecessary plastic that we use daily that is discarded and nobody even thinks about it. It’s the unconsciousness of living in our society that I hope I can help change. I want people to look at it and think I don’t really need that thing.
Why did you start your Eco-Heroes series and how do you choose your subjects?
My Eco (Ocean) Heroes series started because I knew nothing about ocean plastic. I researched and came across Ted Talks by ocean experts and activists like Captain Charles Moore, who discovered the Pacific garbage patch in the 90s, and Chris Jordan, known for the film Albatross. Through these people, I would meet other people like Stiv Wilson and Manuel Maqueda, who co-founded the Plastic Pollution Coalition. These people inspire me because they are doing real work. I admire them because they are out there making change while I sit in my studio being an artist.
How long do your pieces take you? What is your process?
It truly depends on the piece. A head and shoulders, which I call a bust, takes me about three weeks. A full-body one takes a bit more than a month; it depends on what else I’ve got going on in my life. It takes time to find the plastic, wash, sort, and divide it into different colors and pieces. There are so many, so it’s like a palate, but everything is a different shape and thickness and made up of a different chemical constitution. Thousands of pieces go into each piece. If it’s a commissioned piece, I sit with the subject, get to know them, and add a personal note or touch to bring it character.
Is there anything exciting coming up for you?
I’m working on setting up some shows. However, Director and Producer, Cynthia Abbott, with Every Second Breath Project made a short film about me. It’s a seven-minute documentary in a three-part film series called Three Ocean Advocates: Inspiring Change. The World Ocean Film Festival picked it up, and it is going to be shown all over the world.
The film Tess Felix, Portrait of an Artist by Every Second Breath will be shown at The O’Hanlon Center, 616 Throckmorton Ave. Mill Valley February 22, 2024