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Making a rubbish masterpiece

A Q&A with Joseph Paxton who created the Rubbish Campaign statue on display at UK church events this summer.

Written by Tearfund | 08 Aug 2023

A statue of a young person standing atop a mountain of plastic waste.

The Rubbish statue has been on tour at church events and Christian festivals this summer. Image: Hannah Bowring / Tearfund.

If you were at events like Focus and Creationfest this summer, you may have come across our Rubbish statue. The sculpture, created by Joseph Paxton, shows a young person standing on a ‘mountain’ of rubbish – a reminder that we’re facing mountains of rubbish globally and it’s impacting people living in poverty the most.

We spoke to Joseph to find out more about his work, his background and what it was like to create the statue. Read the interview below, and check out our Rubbish Campaign page to learn more about the rubbish problem.

Tell us about yourself, your background and your artistic work.

I grew up in rural Wales where I developed a fascination and love for the natural environment and animals. I discovered sculpture at school and went on to study Fine Art at Newcastle University, where I had access to facilities that enabled me to develop my welding and armature building skills. After graduating, I moved to London to pursue my career as an artist.

My work is largely figurative and focuses mostly on the animal form but increasingly I am bringing the human form into my work. I’m thinking more about how my work can bring attention to our connection with the environment and natural world – with a view to helping us stay connected to nature, encouraging us to be aware of our impact upon it and need to preserve it.

Can you tell us about the process of making the Rubbish statue?

I was given a brief to create a sculpture to help raise awareness of the impact plastic waste is having on humans and the environment. I submitted a few sketches and Tearfund chose the concept of a child standing on top of a mountain of plastic waste.

I welded the frame for the base together first, then the brackets that would support the signage. I then cut out three wooden signs (from recycled plywood) in the shape of everyday plastic recycling-container items. The next stage was to weld a frame for the child figure, and the bolting points, for attaching it to the base.

Over the weeks leading up to creation of the sculpture, I had been collecting as many recyclables as possible. At this point I began to fill the base section with recyclables to see how much more I would need. As it turned out, I had nowhere near enough and had to go on a forage for more!

A sculpture of a young person on top of a pile of rubbish

The figure is holding a sachet of water in one hand, which was collected by a member of the Tearfund team on a visit to Haiti. Image: Joseph Paxton / Tearfund.

The Hackney Half Marathon was happening near to my studio, and so I collected many recyclable water cans and some recyclable plastic from the litter-picks happening there. I wanted to include other recyclable materials as well as plastic, to show that alternatives to plastic are available, especially to hold water, as plastic bottles for water are such a huge source of plastic waste globally.

I sculpted the figure last. I had a fairly good idea of the pose of the piece and I had collected some old fibre-optic internet cabling that I planned to use for the hair. The figure is holding a sachet of water in one hand, which is an original sachet collected by a member of the Tearfund team on a visit to Haiti. These sachets are used widely in parts of the world with poor mains-water supply and are a large contributor to plastic waste.

The piece was sculpted in plaster and coated with a clear lacquer, to help protect the plaster from deteriorating in the rain, whilst being exhibited outdoors. The final part of the process was to paint the signs white and glue the printed information sheets to them, ready for display.

What themes were you trying to pursue in this piece?

The main idea is to draw attention to the large amounts of plastic and non-recycled waste created daily across the world and the impact this has on people and the environment. 

Having a child figure as the main subject emphasises the fact that the young and future generations are the ones who will suffer most greatly from the current waste problems. It also aims to emphasise hope for the future – if knowledge and education in this area spread and we take action to change the way we consume and use materials.

I wanted the child figure to be ambiguous in terms of gender and race as I feel it is very important that all humans from all walks of life are represented in this fight against plastic pollution – both those suffering from the issues and those being educated to make changes in the world and in day-to-day habits. The crisis must be seen globally and not as one that any of us are removed from, simply due to geographic location or socio-economic position.

What do you hope people take away from this piece?

I would like the sculpture to make people really think about the vast amounts of waste we create daily, and the small habits and actions we can implement as individuals that can collectively help to make a big difference. I would like people to be aware that this is a global problem and one that affects us all, whatever part of the world we are living in.

How can people find out more about you and your work?

You can see images and information on my work on my website. Or take a look at my Instagram and follow me there.


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