JESSICA LEITMANIS is a Byron Bay-based sculpture artist working primarily with marine debris and rope that has been salvaged from remote coastlines around Australia. Inscribed in these objects is a history of life at sea — a token of men’s wills battered and reshaped by the elements. See the full story from Paul’s studio visit for Where They Create here.

Tell me a little about you and where we are right now…
I am an artist working out of my home studio in Broken Head. I work with marine debris rope that I’ve collected from beaches across Australia, and I weave them into various sculptures and objects.

What brought you to broken head? Can you tell me more about this area?
I grew up visiting here as a kid, and it was an opportunity that came up because my uncle’s cabin was vacant. I love this place because it’s just right on the beach and so pretty — and it was a chance for me to step back from my full-time work and allow myself to just work part-time and really focus on my art work.

Is it a different community out here?
Broken Head itself is quite small. Byron is a very transient town, and you find there’s many people who live in the outskirts, who sort of travel into Byron, then escape back to their little oasess — their little hinterland spots. It’s all a small community, I guess.

What made you choose marine rope as a material, and did you have to teach yourself to weave it?
It sort of evolved organically. I was doing a lot of ink drawing at the time, and I was really inspired by — and revolted by — the amount of plastic that was washing up on the coast line. I was seeing photographs by a fellow named Chris Jordan, of albatross with plastic in their stomachs, and I was responding to that through ink drawings. As I became more and more aware of what was happening, I began noticing more debris in my travels, and I began picking it up. Then from that, I began working with polystyrene, and I started to sew a bit of rope, and I was really drawn to the texture and the fibers and what the ocean and elements had done to them. A lot of the rope that I work with is severely faded and tangled and brittle on the outside but, on the inside, it can be really vibrant still. I think at the time, I was living in a house down in Torquay, which had a lot of woven objects in it, and I they got into my psyche a little bit; my subconscious joined the dots together a little.

It was definitely a process that I freestyled. I didn’t google how to weave and didn’t get any books; I just began exploring what the fiber could do, and it was almost as if it just led me on this journey… Although, having said that, there’s definitely a bit of a negotiation process, because the medium is often quite stubborn in what it wants to do and what you can do with it. I think my technique itself is pretty basic, but I’m quite happy keeping it that way — it allows the medium to do the talking!

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You’ve traveled extensively to collect these ropes. What insight has it given you about humanity’s relationship to our oceans?
It’s pretty staggering how far the things that we discard or the things that escape society can travel. I’ve done trips around the southwest of Tasmania with various clean-up organizations, and it’s just… We’ve found messages in a bottle from America! We’ve found objects from Africa, objects from Indonesia! We’re all essentially connected by the ocean, which is this amazing body of water that we’re all indebted to. But at the same time, we’re throwing all this stuff in there.

It’s pretty staggering, when you arrive at beaches within a World Heritage area that essentially has no civilization within 2 days on a boat — or you have to spend a week walking in, or fly in — and in these beaches that essentially no one lives on, you’ll find the mark of man. Some of them are really heavily polluted, and that’s pretty confronting. But at the same time, when you’ve got 30 enthusiastic people with a few hours up their sleeve, you can transform a beach and leave it noticeably different and clean. And that’s empowering. The benefit of working in a team like that means that you feel optimistic about the fact that we can turn things around. Though it’s quite remarkable how much of an impact man has had on the surface of the earth.

How have you adapted your space to accomodate your work?
Sometimes, I am forced into a corner, and the work takes over. I keep most of it in one room, and that’s because I really try to contain the rope and the fibers. But what happens when I’m working with my fibers, when I am unravelling them is they often have been exposed to the sun for so long that they begin to disintegrate. Although they might have been held together before I began working, as soon as I untwist them, everything just falls apart — the twist has essentially been the only thing that had been holding the fibers together! With that comes a lot of plastic dust, as well as salt, and maybe some bits of funky seaweed, so I work pretty diligently to just keep that quite isolated. I wear a mask with a  pretty serious air filter just to contain the plastic fibers.

It’s really mainly a concern when I’ve unravelling, though; once the objects are constructed and they’re not getting beat around as much, then it’s pretty fine. But I’ve adapted my house to the ropes, and I work inside for this reason.

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Can you tell us your latest project? What are you working on?
I have a few things under way. One is the piece you saw on the deck. It’s not a new project, but it’s a long project, I’m probably 2 meters into it — I talk in meters, because time is a whole other kettle of fish. That piece will be 17 metres by it’s completion; probably, it will trim down as I go along the process, and the tail will be quite skinny. The rope is a big piece that washed up around the headland about half a kilometer away from where I live — which is quite extraordinary — and I managed to bring it back to my cabin. I’m working on it outside, because it doesn’t shed as much rope, and because I don’t have a home for it yet. I don’t exactly know where it will be realized, but it’s gonna need a pretty significant space, and I’d like to explore lighting and sound with the piece as well. It might be something that will be interactive, so people can walk through it… I’m still exploring the possibility and it will probably reveal itself as i go along.

I’ve got another big piece underway in the back there, although it’s not very large at the moment. But that will be more of an open weave, a large wall-hanging. The last one I did of that scale was about 2×3 meters, so I might try to double that size. I would like to work towards an exhibition — though that might be about a year away.

What gave you the courage to follow your path?
That’s a really good question. I got to a point where it just made sense. When I started on the journey, I had no idea how it would shape my life and where it would leave me, in terms of the adventures I’ve been on, the people I’ve met. It sort of grew in a way that it became something I just couldn’t deny. And I have so many ideas for the rope, and what I want to explore with it, I don’t see it slowing down any time soon.

I worked within other’s peoples parameters for so long, I was really hungry to just realize my own vision. I still juggle a few balls now; I still work on projects for other people… But it’s something, for me, as an artist, that even though I put so much energy into my rope, and I’ll be up until 3 am without even knowing, it gives me energy back. Sometimes, I find we end up in situations where we all put a lot of energy into something, but it’s not necessarily replenishing. And for me, that’s what my art work is: it gives me the energy and excitement right back.

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