Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. That may be the fate of the mortal coil, but humans have never had much truck with letting flesh have the final word. “Rock, stone, mosaics, ceramics. These are the lasting materials of any civilization,” says Donna Billick, the founder of Billick Rock Art in Davis, California and Todos Artes in Todos Santos, Baja California Sur. “Rock art is the only uninterrupted communication throughout human history of who we are culturally. It is a statement of who we are in our time as well as the transmission of ourselves through time. When you look back across the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, China, Mesoamerica, you will find ceramics and mosaics embedded in the culture, still informing us today in vibrant and dynamic detail about those ancient lives lived.”
In fact, ceramics – clay hardened by heat – are so durable that NASA incorporates the material into present-day spacecraft engineering. The space agency actually has a page on its website devoted to “Superhero Ceramics!” noting that ceramics are “stronger than aluminum, fireproof and able to withstand meteoroids.” Among many other uses, the entire lower surface of a space shuttle orbiter is covered with ceramic tiles as part of the spacecraft’s thermal protection system. But there is another material that is equally compelling to NASA and that is “pound-for-pound more effective for shielding against cosmic radiation than aluminum.” Plastic. In fact, the same material used to make household trash bags, polyethylene, can be chemically modified into a material that has three times the tensile strength of aluminum and is 2.6 times lighter.
That type of durability is highly desirable for space travel, particularly for any humans interested in traveling to Mars who would have to endure high levels of radiation for up to 30 months. But the very durability that makes your plastic trash bag seem like Superman’s cape in space, makes it a more of a Lex Luther-grade menace when it simply envelopes your trash in a landfill on earth. It can take up to 1,000 years to decompose, and in the process it can release toxic pollutants into the air, ground and water that threaten our very existence on the planet. It is probably safe to say that we would all rather have our first trip to Mars be by personal choice then by mandated evacuation order.
Donna, who has a degree in genetics in addition to art, started the Art & Science Fusion Program during her tenure as a professor at the University of California Davis. It is therefore not surprising that she and her Todos Artes “quaranteam” of artists, surfers and environmentalists Isabel “Issy” Von Zastrow and Will Worden, saw their two worlds happily collide around the durable properties of ceramics and plastic. It all started with the ecobrick. Explains Will, “An ecobrick is a plastic container like a Coke bottle or a garafon (large water container) stuffed to the brim with non-biodegradable plastic waste. This makes a very strong, reusable and long-lasting building material that can be used to make many things including furniture, garden walls, and sculptures. Issy and I were working on ecobricks for our new home, when we happened to observe Donna giving a ceramic mosaic workshop. The lightbulb kind of collectively went off for all of us, and we all saw a great way to mitigate the extremely negative impact of plastic waste’s durability, with the culturally positive impact of ceramic’s durability. When we take the ecobricks and encase them in concrete and ceramic mosaics, it makes a beautiful and enduring piece of art. From the basic building block of an ecobrick, you can make lamps, tables, chairs, really all kinds of beautiful, functional pieces.”
When Donna got out of graduate school in the mid-1970s, the governor of California at the time, Jerry Brown, mandated that 2% of the budget for all public buildings be devoted to art. For Donna, this was the answer to her father’s daily question during her childhood, “so what is your big idea?”, and she’s spent the last 42 years producing large scale art for public spaces. But having her art enjoyed by everyone, not just a few private collectors or gallery owners, is only part of Donna’s Big Idea. “Community build is really where it’s at. Jerry Brown saw public art as a key component of an enlightened, vibrant and thriving society. And when the community itself participates in making a piece of art, it creates a sense of collective ownership and pride in the art that is simply not possible any other way.” Donna, a founding member of the Community Built Association, brought community build to Todos Santos through Todos Artes and her annual Heaven on Earth workshop. Two of her ceramic mosaic pieces built by Todos Santos community members, the Aztec Calendar just off the Todos Santos town plaza, and the Los Todos Santeños wall along the well-traveled route of lower Topete, are now some of the most-photographed, most-loved, and iconic images of the town.
Issy outlines how the ecobricks can fit into a long-term community build program for our tourism-driven area. “There is a difference between impact and influence. One way that the communities of Baja California Sur can influence the impact of tourism on our towns is to invite all travelers to contribute to the ecobricks. Each hotel, restaurant and Airbnb rental can have an old garafon in a central area and invite travelers to stuff it with their plastic waste. When the garafon is full, either we at Todos Artes will come pick it up to turn it into functional art, or we can share with the proprietors how to do it themselves. We invite visitors into our communities to experience the area’s great natural beauty, and this is a great way for them to help ensure that the place will be just as beautiful the next time they visit. They can influence the impact they have on the community in a lasting, beautiful way.”
There is a group called The Long Now Foundation that is in the process of building the 10,000 Year Clock – a clock it expects to keep time for 10,000 years – with the help of ceramic bearings of course. The clock is a monument to long-term thinking and Alexander Rose, the executive director of the project notes, “It is not the engineering [of the clock] but the civilization around it which we hope to shape as one that cares for both the present and the future. We hope that by building such things…they challenge us to become better ancestors.” The Todos Artes team sees ecobricks in much the same light. Says Donna, “The ecobricks are a great way to increase the environmental literacy of our community, to engage the current generation in a completely fun way in the preservation of the stunning nature all around us for future generations.”
Perhaps when the 10,000 Year Clock strikes its last hour all those centuries into the future, and the archaeologists are writing their books on the ancient artifacts of the 2020s in Baja California Sur, they’ll be struck by the care that society took to turn one of its most enduring problems – plastic waste – into some of its most enduring works of art. Rock, stone, mosaics, ceramics. With ecobricks we’ll be transmitting who we were culturally to all the generations to come. We’ll be proving ourselves good ancestors. And, if all goes according to plan, those receiving the message will still have the option to live on a vibrant, thriving and enlightened Earth.