Trash Into Treasure: An Interview with “Loom and Doom” Artist Kelsey Merreck Wagner

By: Kelsey Swanson and Dorothy Zhao

Everyone knows the common phrase “someone’s trash is another person’s treasure”. Artist and anthropology Ph.D. candidate Kelsey Merreck Wagner has found a creative way to combine the best of both worlds, while also bringing light to the divisive topic of plastic usage in modern-day society in her piece “Loom and Doom”. We asked Kelsey some questions about her inspiration, what commentary she wanted to bring to the pieces, and other details about her work and inspiration.

DZ:  What was your thought process on coming up with “Loom and Doom”?

KMW: I learned how to weave about six years ago at a community center. My artwork has always been about the environment and social and environmental justice issues. A previous body of work that I had done was mostly about endangered species, especially elephants, and conservation, and the tourism industry around them. Then, right around when the pandemic started, I was kind of thinking about having a new body of work as an artist. I’d really been thinking a lot about plastic and how much of a problem plastic use is around the world, but also in America. I was thinking about how this was a free local material that I had, and so I started collecting plastic to do weavings with.

KMW: With weaving, one of the most important things is that communities of color around the world invented the technology behind weaving, and then really just went crazy with all kinds of cool patterns and techniques and colors.The history of weaving was something that’s really important as a craft, tradition, and cultural practice. It’s always been a place-based activity. Thinking about the history of weaving was really important to me, and then thinking, ‘okay, as a white woman in America, what is the natural resource that’s around me that I can weave with?’ I was just thinking, ‘okay, well, I have so much plastic that’s like my unnatural natural resource’.

KMW: I started collecting and telling family members and friends to collect their plastic for me. One of the really cool things in collecting plastic from friends and family members has been being able to have conversations about our plastic use. For me, that’s kind of been one of the most exciting, successful parts is that people are so shocked how much plastic they go through.

KS: How did creating your other artwork affect your “Loom and Doom” piece?

KMW: I’ve always done work about the environment. My undergraduate degree is in studio art. It’s a really interesting time, being a student artist, thinking about what kind of mark you’ll make on the art world, if any at all, and I felt like the thing I really wanted to focus on was using my art to make a difference about the environment.

KMW: The first really big [artwork] that was on my website4 was “From Bangkok to Boone”. I started making those after coming back from Thailand, where I had worked with the elephant conservation organization. That whole experience was really exciting for me, because I’ve always loved elephants. I always thought about that as biology, not something that social scientists or artists were involved with in terms of conservation. So that was a very ‘light bulb’ moment for me, where I realized that art and environmental education are so important in raising awareness about issues that people maybe have no idea about, so that they could make a difference if they know about it. A year later, I had a bigger version of [the elephant] exhibition, “The Elephantine in the Anthropocene”. I think it can be difficult for people to understand if the information is not presented in an accessible way. I felt like art was a really good way to literally visualize what the problems are, and make people more excited about it.

KS: Any updates on any new loom pieces?

KMW: I’ve done a few pieces since I sent the ones into the [1.5° Celsius] exhibition in August. I just did one that was all gray plastic bags from Walmart, with little bits of color. It was a new technique I wanted to try out. I have one other commission from a fellow classmate at MSU that actually owns a farm. They have feed bags for all their animals, so she mailed me all the colorful feed bags for a weaving that is just basically all of the plastic she uses from her farm. That has also been a really cool part of making different weavings, especially when they have been gifts for friends or commissions is that I kind of consider it a portrait because people are giving me the plastic that they use every day in their lives, and so it gives you an idea, a little insight into people’s lives. It’s also really interesting that I’ve been collecting plastic from people all over the country. When people give me their trash, they probably don’t expect me to read this much into it, but I’m able to pick up on a lot of things like race, class, gender, all these different kinds of categories based on the trash that people have. For example, the trash that my friends give me the bags are from TJ Maxx, Target and Walmart, whereas some of my parents’ wealthier friends will give me Nordstrom bags and Whole Foods.

DZ: What are your thoughts on the European/big city/Aldi’s policy on not handing out plastic bags, and promoting reusable bag usage?

KMW: I think it’s awesome, everywhere needs to do that. One of the things I think about through this project, [is] the idea of corporate versus consumer responsibility. The way things work in our world, responsibility gets passed off to the consumers, it’s up to us to be in charge of how we use the plastic. I think that corporations need to be responsible for what they’re putting out into the world, and thus into our ecosystems. I think absolutely on their end, they should be interested in banning plastic and making a difference. A lot of European cities have done it. A lot of places and stores were doing it up until the pandemic, then they didn’t want people bringing in their reusable bags, so plastic came back full force. I think the idea of banning bags at grocery stores is good, because it forces you to not use plastic as much. I think any way that corporations, businesses, these kinds of different entities are able to make the change, people will adjust to that, and that becomes the new normal. I think it would be great if plastic was banned around the world. I used to live in Cambodia for a year, and I learned that they never used plastic to wrap and to package their food, so whatever kind of food you got, it usually was wrapped in a banana leaf, or would cut pieces of bamboo. For the longest time, they didn’t use plastic, and when Western tourism, especially people from Europe and America, started coming over, the convenience of plastic was introduced, and so they switched entirely to plastic. Just the idea that there are alternatives that we can go back to… we just need governments [and] nonprofits to really force that change to happen, and people will adjust.

KS: Could you elaborate on creating a small-scale loom for student usage, a cheaper alternative, or something similar for people who don’t have the resources to make a big one?

KMW: I did a weaving workshop for an art center, and we used these $12 looms1 from Amazon. They’re only maybe 12 inches by 18 inches, but they worked out really well. The other option is that you can go to Goodwill or any thrift store, to the picture frames section, and pick out a wooden picture frame for around $4. You just have to make sure that it’s decent wood. You take out the glass from the photo frame [and] the backing of the frame. Then, you put nails or screws at the top and bottom of the loom, and you’re ready to go. All you need after that is string, which you just loop up and down, and then you’re ready to start weaving. There are a lot of really good blog posts and YouTube2 stuff.

DZ: Is there anything you would specifically like us to mention?

KMW: I think the most important tagline would be that I think everyone is an artist, we all live our lives creatively. Our lives are our own artwork, this body of work that we’re creating for our entire lives, so everyone has the power to create and be creative. Everyone can also be an activist. For me, the most important thing is that art doesn’t have to be a very highbrow high society thing; everyone is able to make art. I tried to use that as sort of my message of empowerment through my work, but also, especially through the kind of workshops and classes that I get to do, that we really need to break down these barriers about who has power, who has creativity, who’s allowed to express themselves. I think with the climate crisis, endangered species, extinction, all of these things going on, that are affecting not only humans, but animals and ecosystems, plants, bodies of water, go about different ways to have the energy about reducing plastic, just all kinds of different things. So, for me, that’s why I think creativity is such a great way of activism, and people’s ability to advocate for themselves, for their communities, and for the environment. I don’t think that the climate crisis is something that only scientists are going to solve, I think it’s something that the entire world has to be involved in in making different changes. Activism [and art] for me go hand in hand, and I want people to be able to tap into that and make a difference.


About the Authors

Kelsey Swanson

Kelsey Swanson is a sixth-year senior at Michigan State University, studying biomedical laboratory diagnostics and neuroscience, with intentions to pursue a career in medical clinical research studying neurogenetics and psychological disorders. In her free time, you will find her watching Liverpool FC (You’ll Never Walk Alone) and the Detroit sports teams, or walking the beaches of Northern Michigan with her labradoodle, Anfield, hunting for the elusive Petoskey Stone.

Dorothy Zhao

Dorothy Zhao is a second-year student studying Neuroscience at Michigan State University. She is extremely passionate about research, and works as a research assistant in a few different research laboratories at MSU. In her free time, you will find her reading.


REFERENCES 7 pieces weaving loom kit wood weaving looms wooden diy … (n.d.). Retrieved October 9, 2022, from

DIY frame loom : Weaving for Beginners. YouTube. (2019, September 9). Retrieved October 9, 2022, from

How to make a rope from the plastic bottle. YouTube. (2016, March 12). Retrieved October 8, 2022, from

Kelsey Merreck Wagner. KELSEY MERRECK WAGNER. (n.d.). Retrieved October 8, 2022, from

Swanson, K., Zhao, D., & Merreck Wagner, K. (2022, October 6). Loom and Doom. personal.

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