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This winter I was commissioned to create a new sculpture called “Bella” by Beacon Converters, a company located in New Jersey that creates sterilization packaging for the healthcare industry. The sculpture is made from discarded Tyvek®, you might know the product because you’ve often seen the logo wrapped around new building construction, but the thin spunbonded, rip-resistant plastic is also used in other protective applications such as medical sterilization packaging (who knew?). Beacon Converters, and the entire sterilization packaging industry use this material to manufacture pouches and other products that are used to protect medical devices and pharmaceuticals. As you can probably tell from the pictures, this plastic material looks like paper or in certain applications, like satin fabric. A bridal gown seemed like a fitting use for this beautiful material!
How Bella was Conceived
Last September I traveled to the Stamford Museum and Nature Center in Connecticut to give presentations and workshops in conjunction with my ReDress: UpCycled Style exhibition, which is touring museums throughout the US. At my workshop I made a special connection with a dynamic woman named Terri Shank who had attended the opening night of my exhibit and returned several more times before it came down. She and her two sisters own and run their family’s business, Beacon Converters, which was started by their grandfather in 1947. During one of our exchanges Terri shared with me a vision of how one of my sculptures could help bring awareness to the recyclability of the products they produce. She envisioned a white wedding dress and together, through many conversations, we co-created the general concept for the sculpture. Terri and her sisters chose the name Bella as it was the name of their paternal grandmother who was married to their grandfather, Beacon founder, William Francis Daly.
What is Bella’s mission?
Bella will bring attention to the recyclability of medical packaging waste, and contribute toward the awareness that in the future could create a new outcome for this healthcare packaging waste stream. According to the Flexible Packaging Association’s research on the packaging industry, when we look at the overall waste stream:
• 33% of all packaging waste is made from plastics
• 18% of packaging waste is flexible (as in plastic film, paper and foil)
• 77% of all used plastic is buried in the landfill
• 6% of plastic is recycled
And if we consider the healthcare industry specifically (equating to 5.2 million tons annually):
• 8% of all flexible packaging is generated in the medical and pharmaceutical industry
• 20-30% of a hospital’s waste can be generated from the operating room (OR)
• 80% of hospital packaging OR waste is non-contaminated waste, generated before the patient enters the OR, and thus can be repurposed or recycled
Tyvek® is made from 100% high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and can be recycled into products that resist insects, rot and other chemicals, such as plastic lumber, indoor and outdoor furniture, garden products, automotive parts, underground cable protection, piping, packaging cores, trays etc. Polyethylene can normally be recycled 4 to 5 times before its physical properties are substantially affected. When it comes to recycling flexible packaging in general however, it can be difficult to recycle products with multiple layers. In the case of medical grade Tyvek® pouches, also called sterilization pouches or bags, heat is used to adhere the Tyvek® to other materials and once the product is peeled apart, the Tyvek® can be sent to the HDPE recycle stream, as a single source material.
Beacon Converters is a member of the Flexible Packaging Association and a sponsor of Practice Greenhealth’s Greening the Operating Room (OR) initiative. Beacon believes it is important to raise awareness of the availability and recyclability of this sterilization packaging material, in order to divert valuable end of life materials from the landfill.
Making a new sculpture is a balance between inspired creativity and problem solving. Sometimes I sew the base garment from scrap materials but in this case I wanted to spend my time with the Tyvek®, not sewing a wedding dress, which itself could take a very long time! So instead, I found an old wedding dress at a thrift store, removed all the lace and reshaped it. As it was, Bella took approximately 225 hours to create.
My primary quandary creating Bella was figuring out how Tyvek® could look most like fabric and especially how it could not be wrinkled after being packed and shipped. I experimented with various ways of working with this beautiful material so new to me, and found that horizontal bands that hugged her body shape would remain smooth and actually looked quite a bit like satin! Thus starting at the bottom of the dress I sewed them one overlapping the next. For the dress’ back skirt and train, the areas mostly likely to get creased, I decided to embrace, not avoid, wrinkling! I took the Tyvek® and scrunched it up into a big ball, twisted it and wrung it out as you would a wet shirt. Then putting it between sheets, I ironed it on a very low setting which created a crepe fabric effect. If there are any creases in the skirt or train after shipping, they can easily be removed by curling the strips using a pair of scissors, as you would curl ribbon for a gift. This creates ringlets that, when smoothed out, flatten the material. In the end, I really enjoy how the vertical strips bring a sense of movement, almost like splashing water as they fall down to the ground and across the length of the train.
There are a surprising number of additional logistical considerations that impact the design of my sculptures, for example issues related to packing and shipping. Bella is made of two pieces: one is the dress, which remains on a dedicated dress form and the second is the train. Each piece has its own shipping box and so Bella’s dimensions were carefully determined by the size of the largest boxes that can be sent through FedEx or UPS. The boxes themselves were custom made out of corrugated plastic by a company in Texas. As you can see in this photo foam pieces keep her from moving around during transit. If the dress needs to be wearable, this obviously will also impact design decisions. Though Bella lives on a dress form, she has a zipper and can be worn.
The flowers on the dress were also made from Tyvek® by Beacon Converter employees in New Jersey and then shipped to my studio in Portland, Oregon. The sculpture will eventually have additional flowers attached to the train. The intention is for Bella to travel to various healthcare industry conferences where Terri will engage conference attendees in creating more flowers. Actually, Bella will have quite the busy social schedule this spring; traveling to the American Association of Preoperative Nurses conference in Anaheim, CA, where flower making workshops will be held, then onto Practice Greenhealth’s CleanMed conference in Dallas, Texas, where I will meet up with Bella and the Daly sisters and attach the rest of Bella’s flowers to her train in a series of public “sewing circles”. Later, in June Beacon will escort Bella to New York where she will be unveiled and on display at MD&M East, where the latest in Medical Device design technologies are on exhibit.
Bella is the first sculpture that I have created since I moved back to Portland, my home town. This was also the first time that my Mom, who taught me how to sew, has helped me with one of my sculptures. She assisted me almost every week starting with the initial design and spent many hours cutting the horizontal bands and vertical strips. While we were working she filled my ear with clever tales that our previous distance, when I lived in New Mexico, did not encourage. This made the project extra special for me, thanks for your help Mom!
My favorite projects involve close collaborations with my sponsors, such as the one that created Bella. I love the organic process that develops as my co-creators bring their ideas to the project and together we experience the wonder that happens as the creative process unfolds. Creating Bella with Terri and her sisters was particularly delightful, our discussions were always vibrant and we experienced many synchronicities, as Bella began to emerge, that made us feel we were on the right track. It was particularly special for me to work with Terri– she is big hearted, enthusiastic and very creative. She has welcomed Bella into the world as she would a new daughter-in-law; planning photo shoots, writing “bridal” invitations to create flowers for her dress, and filling up her “dance card” with parties (conferences and events). It has been magical creating Bella, and I am so grateful to Terri and her sisters for this delightful experience!