Bronson Leiro : Healthier Alternatives to Sculptural Materials

My recent creations have been structural, architecturally inspired installations. Using a material such as cement has allowed for a practical approach to creating the structures you see below, but the sculptures are now an environmental burden. Finding an environmentally friendly alternative that can still be poured into molds is where my work has led me. Not only so the sculptures can be recycled, reused, or disposed of in the future, but also for the sake of cleaning extra material during the creative process. When using cement it is rather disheartening to have to dispose of the waste. It would be an easier clean up, plus a more palatable practice if the material could just be thrown into dirt. My current intention is not to create a structural building material alternative, but to create a stable material for smaller scale installations and sculptures.

Bronson Leiro, 3rd year, Studio Art

Through my research, I’ve now begun to understand the logic behind why materials stay together and become stronger over time. Some materials rely on mechanical interlocking to stay together, while other materials rely on chemical reactions to bind the mixture once dry. With  cementitious materials, this reaction creates a new material similar to stone. This has opened up a distinct path of my research, focused on a process that relies on chemical reactions to create a binded material. Usually, the ingredients in portland cement bind with sand and gravel to create concrete. Portland cement is a mixture of many toxic and hard to degrade ingredients. My research has led me to find that heating up oyster shells to a high temperature will calcinate them.

Calcifying the shells allows them to have a cementitious reaction with materials that are high in silica and alumina, such as wood ash. When provided with sand and other aggregate, this should output a relatively stable material that is exponentially better for the environment.      A downside of this chemical process is that it typically requires a material with a high pH. These structures would be much safer to degrade in the environment than those made from portland cement, but they would have to be disposed of properly as some plants cannot deal with high pH conditions. As high pH or alkaline products are sold for garden use such as garden lime, the waste can be used for specific use cases like amending soils that are acidic or for plants that thrive in high pH soil.

Another route is air dried clay. This would not be a waterproof alternative, but there is a possibility for larger scale interior work to be made with clay and left to dry. This would eliminate the need for a kiln, which provides more access to the process, as well as less energy consumption. The clay waste and even the finished products can then be disposed of with neutral to beneficial impacts on the environment. The clay does not have an extreme pH, and  could even be infused with seeds or other nutrients which would benefit the plants where it is disposed.

Fortunately, I have access to kilns, so I will also be working towards firing sculptures from clay I processed from the soil. Given there is access to kilns, a proper heating of the clay will vitrify silica in the clay creating a fused, waterproof material. A downside is that most kilns are relatively small, but if designed properly, large structures can be created by connecting many smaller pieces together. In this way I can continue with my installations while having healthier materials during the process and for future disposal. While I most likely would not be able to put seeds or other nutrients into the clay as it will be fired to temperatures above 1500 degrees, the bricks can still be broken down and disposed of with a neutral effect on the environment.. 

I have also been researching materials commonly used in confectionary settings, such as rock sugar. I have found a substance called isomalt which can be melted and poured into molds to create a glass like material. It is a much more expensive alternative, but with the proper budget it could be an effective and beautiful alternative material.

I have previously done work with sewing thin layers of bioplastic made from seaweed and vegetable glycerin. I am looking to extend this research into thicker molds. The bioplastics can be infused with many different textures and colors, and it can easily be disposed of. This would be for more temporary purposes, as the bioplastic does get noticeably drier over months.

There is also the possibility for hardened waxes. These would be as strong as common plastics, but can be made from plants such as Carnauba or Candelilla. These materials are healthier to work with and to dispose of, but do require the appropriate budget. I will be experimenting with them to see if there are practical approaches to using wax as a sculptural material. If not for larger scale work, then for small scale art objects or model work.

While my first intentions were to create an alternative for permanent sculptures, I have found some methods that were strong but not entirely stable. Mixing wood ash and water creates a material that looks and feels just like cement when dry. It does break apart with minimal weight load, but for structures that are intended to be viewed from distance, or for the sake of video documentation, my sculptures can be made healthy and sustainably. Many of my exhibitions have been for one day, and then the work has to be stored. While there are some objects that are purchased and need to be handled, I can continue to create sculptures like the one in the first photo and then dispose of it easier and safer. Depending where it is done, I can tear it down and sweep up if indoors, or just leave it in place if outdoors. The wood ash has beneficial nutrients for the soil, and if I add seeds I can create my sculptures and have a beneficial footprint to the environment.

I will now be continuing my research with these distinct intentions. I am progressing towards more effective and practical methods for the oyster shell cement, and hope to create a similar permanent installation as seen in the first photo. Going down another path, I will be learning about ceramic processes to utilize pure clay for both temporary and permanent work. Another intention will be towards works which are made to degrade, such as the wood ash cement and air dried clay. I look forward to sharing my findings. 

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