Aurora Robson: Human Nature Walk

June 24, 2023 – March 9, 2024

Displaced abundance. That’s how artist Aurora Robson views our plastic debris problem. It’s an incredibly powerful way to reframe such an insidious global issue. We tend to think of abundance as a positive—as a state of being that we can cultivate to make our lives better, happier, and more secure. Our global economic systems have been built on facilitating the abundance mindset through nonstop development and the promotion of consumerism, commercialism, and global trade. We are conditioned to believe that more is better, and new is even better. When it comes to plastic, our tendencies towards abundance have created a global crisis of chaotic displacement. Plastic is a manifestation of our best innovative imaginations and our worst unconscious behaviors. Robson intentionally redirects its incessant flow into something less harmful and more beautiful and meaningful.

Robson has said that PET, one of the most common kinds of plastic, has “archival integrity.” While the recycling industry has far to go in terms of managing plastic reuse innovatively and efficiently, many artists, scientists, engineers, and non-governmental organizations are working to combat and redefine our relationship with plastic and to change the human habits that contribute to its continued overproduction and distribution. Throughout her career, Robson has been working toward these ends as well, advocating for plastic to be at the center of a circular economy in the arts.

The first form of plastic, which was derived from a natural polymer in cotton, was created in the late nineteenth century to meet market demand while also inadvertently providing a solution for ivory poaching and ecological devastation, both of which were gaining public awareness. Ivory was in high demand for leisure items used by the Victorian upper class, such as piano keys and billiard balls. In 1869, American engineer John Wesley Hyatt invented what he thought was a replacement for ivory, and indeed the invention helped alleviate the demand for elephant ivory, tortoise shell, animal horn, and amber, among other luxurious, expensive, and increasingly scarce natural plastics. The new material, called celluloid, was also good for making numerous popular products, such as hair combs. In the 1880s, this man-made plastic revolutionized photography and facilitated motion pictures by enabling flexible, transparent film. In short, Hyatt’s invention altered the course of history.

In 1907, Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland, seeking a man-made substitute for the popular natural material called shellac, a resin produced by female lac beetles, created the first completely synthetic form of plastic using phenol, a waste product from coal. When synthetic plastic entered mass production after World War II, it leveled the economic, social, and cultural playing field. Now almost everyone could afford replicas of luxury objects. By the 1960s, plastics were the cornerstone of a global consumer economy based on fossil fuels that was destroying the environment.  

Given the current state of plastic pollution today, a radical reframing of its potential is necessary. Can we re-envision plastic debris as a cornerstone of a new type of gift economy—one that is built on transforming it into a usable material for more imaginative applications? Consider, for example, the Kula ring, a system of gift exchange practiced for centuries in certain island communities of Papua New Guinea and discussed in Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. The items that circulate include white shell armbands and red shell-disc necklaces. Each comes with elaborate rules around when, how, and to whom it is gifted. These objects are distributed by canoe thousands of miles around the Trobriand Islands. They are not considered commodities. No one keeps them. The objects are in constant motion. Embedded in this exchange is the understanding that “to possess is to give” and that sharing, distributing, circulating, and reciprocating create social connection through systems of value that are not based on money. Social rank is not defined by what one owns but by the spirit of one’s circular and expansive gift exchanges. With each successive passing, gifted objects acquire additional social meaning. 

Born in Toronto and raised on Maui, Hawaii, Robson’s childhood was marked by experiences of struggle and strength. Her family life was traumatic and complicated, in stark contrast with the calm and breathtaking nature in which she grew up. While earning her dual degree in Visual Arts and Art History at Columbia University, Robson learned to channel her childhood nightmares into artmaking by “…using the formal structures of the nightmares to explore harmonious compositions,” as she said in her 2014 TedX Talk.

For over 20 years, Robson has been manipulating plastic waste to create beautiful, lyrical, and intricate installations. She has devised many methods for working with plastic that exploit its inherent indestructibility and flexibility. With her hands and other tools, Robson collects, cleans, sorts, bends, cuts, rivets, sews, extrudes, welds, rips, ties, nests, dangles, illuminates, stacks, sculpts, pools, and coaxes plastic, intercepted from the waste stream into new forms and formations. Human Nature Walk represents a compendium of Robson’s techniques and groundbreaking practices with plastic debris. Her immersive installation invites us to slow down and consider all the carefully organized colors, variety of shapes, and enveloping forms that make up the larger work. In this respect, navigating the landscape of the exhibition is like walking through a wooded area, observing the plant activity on the forest floor and the variety of birds in the canopy. At the same time, however, Robson makes us aware of the unsustainable situation we have created through our ubiquitous use of plastic. Robson creates a new experience for us, one in which she has transformed garbage into a new topography full of potential.

Robson’s work fuses consumer and gift economies into a new relationship rich with possibility and coherence. By inviting us to add sterilized plastic caps to the appropriate color section of the exhibition, Robson encourages us to reimagine our relationship with plastic and with each other. Focusing on the possibilities of the thing itself, she asks us to consider where else plastic can contribute to a greater good. She urges us not to throw plastic away but rather to love it and transform it into an offering to others, a gift.

— Katherine Gass Stowe, curator

My practice is a form of serious play driven by the widespread perception that plastic is disposable when it is precisely the opposite. Although plastic debris is an environmentally destructive material, it has vast potential in art applications. In my practice, I turn plastic into art, taking it out of the waste stream, so that its longevity becomes an asset.

Over the past two decades, I have developed techniques that highlight plastic’s potential as a robust artistic medium. The possibilities for manipulating the material are nearly endless—it can be bent, welded, sewn, and more. I lean into my discomfort with the evidence that petroleum products are wreaking havoc on the environment by working with debris. I play with used plastic objects, including bottles, barrels, buckets, caps, and other ephemera, to create hope for a better, sustainable future. 

I believe our responsibility as humans is to honor, study, and maintain the complex balance of life on earth, and to tinker with the systems we have put into place so that they serve life, rather than destroy it. While my work is a call to action to break our negative behavioral patterns and to change attitudes toward perceived disposability, it is also a love poem dedicated to the intersection of nature and culture, with the aim of softening the edges between. 

— Aurora Robson

This exhibition is supported by the Wolf Kahn Foundation, subLyme payments,
Kim Benzel and Bruce Campbell, Jennifer Carter, Laurie and Thomas Fusco Charitable Fund,
Nelson and Penny Rohrbach, and Wendy Stowe.


We invite you to participate in this exhibition by collecting and cleaning your used plastic bottle caps (instructions here) and delivering them to the museum. We will give the caps a final rinse and then make them available to visitors, who are invited to add the cleaned caps to specially designated sections of the installation. In this fashion, we will remove these dangerous objects from the waste stream and transform them into art. By doing so, we will engage in a virtuous “circular economy”  — one that contains echoes of pennies thrown in a wishing well, a hopeful, generative act. 



June 24, Saturday, 5 p.m. — Opening of Eight New Exhibits
July 15, Saturday, 2 p.m. — River Cleanup and Cyanotype Workshop
September 23, Saturday 10 a.m. — Source to Sea River Cleanup Day
September 30, Saturday, 2 p.m. — Found Materials Sculpture Workshop
November 18, Saturday, 7 p.m. — Artist Talk: Aurora Robson


BMAC gift shop: Aurora Robson
“Aurora Robson: Human Nature Walk” exhibit catalogue


Open Door Interview: Aurora Robson
Virtual tour
Installation views
Photo Gallery: Human Nature Walk Installation-in-Progress
Video: Artist Talk: Aurora Robson
Video: Trashed Inspiration, Oceans, Pollution, and Art
Journey Away: Climate Change Audio Project
Call to Action
Ask the Artist!


Review: Vermont | Human Nature Walk: Aurora Robson Art New England (January/February 2024)
Beautiful Plastic, and Cash as Art — Artful (1/11/24)
The Top 10 Vermont Art Exhibitions of 2023 — Seven Days (12/27/23)
Museum Open House – Human Nature Walk at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center NewTV (12/12/23)
Sculptor turns trash into artEagle Times (11/16/23)
Plastic-debris artist will discuss her career — The Commons (11/15/23)
Aurora Robson to discuss her artwork created from plastic trash at free talk — Brattleboro Reformer (11/14/23)
Museum to honor ‘service to art and humanity’The Commons 8/9/2023
Aurora Robson Turns a Ubiquitous Material Into Unique Artworks in ‘Human Nature Walk’Seven Days (8/2/23)
Aurora Robson transforms plastic into art at BMACThe Commons 6/28/2023
Aurora Robson: Environmental Artist working with Waste PlasticLoci (3/20/23)
How Can You Create Sculpture Without Making Waste? Artist Aurora Robson Has Cracked the Code With Her Cast-Off Plastic Worksartnet (3/2/22)