Making Art With Found Materials
Artist Jessica Beels on questioning the materials of our world
Working exclusively with found materials might seem unusual, but to artist Jessica Beels, it’s natural.
“I’ve been making things out of whatever I could find for as long as I can remember,” she says. “I didn’t always call it art. I would’ve called it exploration.”
Her papier-mâché birds are an extension of this philosophy. Some are quizzical and others are bold, and they just might be exploring their surroundings. It’s easy to imagine that they’re paused between hops, questioning their environment.
Every bird has character, and each one is an invitation to look closer. One’s plumage might be birthday-present wrapping paper, and another one’s markings look like segments of an old map. The next question might be, how did someone coax the spirit of a bird from these materials, or, more simply, where did these elements come from?
Beels’ work stems from a deep understanding of the materials we live with, earned over a lifetime of doing the same thing as her birds: exploring and questioning. Growing up in Manhattan, her family was environmentally conscious, concerned with conservation and recycling, so she was aware of the life-cycle of materials from a young age.
As far back as early childhood, she embraced every medium she could find. Sculpture, embroidery, set design, costume design and jewelry are only a few, but she decided to pursue artwork as a career only after earning a graduate degree in history.
“I created things throughout school,” says Beels. “I had always been an artist. I just didn’t know what to call it yet.”
She eventually made the transition to full-time artist in 1995. She explored constantly along the way, learning to make paper and incorporate it into sculptures. She experimented with the possibilities of plastic bags and acrylic. Every piece interrogated the materials around her.
“So few people seem to know where the things in their world come from, or how they’re made,” says Beels. “A lot of the work I do is to get people to ask themselves, what are you looking at?”
The recycled birds appeared in 2016, when the Washington International School asked her to train kindergarten teachers in the art of papier-mâché. Instead of buying new supplies, Beels collected household detritus: a toilet paper roll for the body, wire for the feet, and some paper.
The result is simple and versatile, and the message of conservation is inseparable from the form: new life springing from waste. “I’ve been making them ever since,” she says.
The most concentrated iteration of her oeuvre, they perch inquisitively, this one testing its footing, that one searching for nest materials. As they explore, they invite viewers to ask the question, what am I looking at? It’s a call to stop and consider the things that make up our surroundings, things we use and throw away.
“They’re little messengers,” says Beels. “They fly away and start conversations around the world.”