Sasha Fishman is a sculptor and researcher who has resided and worked in Los Angeles, Baltimore and New York. Her sculptural work is the nexus between her artistic practice and sustainability research, in both form and material. She creates installations that are a system of intricate relationships, juxtapositions between the conventional and unexpected. Sculptures become specimens both held in time and quietly metamorphosing — suspended just close enough for human intervention, as under observation in a laboratory. Yet an almost primordial thrum underscores her pieces and their playful arrangements. The viewer-participant steps into these ecosystems, invited to unpick relations which are simultaneously vast and minute.
Sasha utilizes a range of synthetic and natural materials in these works, many of the latter she has developed herself. Sasha’s research into bioplastics has become intrinsic to her practice, and in our conversation we spoke in depth about some of the more unconventional materials she utilizes and the future of this work. She has recently expanded the scope of her research with hopes to create stable bioplastics for use across industries.
We are speaking via Zoom; Sasha is in her LA studio. She pans around so I can see the space; small sculptural pieces line the shelves, some glass and ceramic, and some things I can’t quite identify, organic forms in tidy arrangements. Just behind these is a drawer labeled “specimens” and under it a drawer labeled “blades”. Pictures of industrial sites and deep-sea excavators tile the wall above her desk. Like her studio, Sasha’s work is an amalgam of forms. One of her most recent sculptural installations, “The Space Between Your Nostrils” explores waste streams, a common theme in Sasha’s work. Some of the listed materials for the installation include spirulina algae, shrimp shells, egg yolk, hagfish skin, and cicada shells collected by the community. I ask how her unique choice of materials is received:
“I kind of love when people are pretty grossed out, I think it’s interesting. I feel like it’s a good educational tool to talk about [bioplastics] with, because it is weird — why am I working with hagfish?”
She is leafing through a binder of specimens, a range of irregular shapes in yellowish hues which she tells me smells like vinegar. They are organized in clear plastic sleeves. Holding one up to the camera, she says, “We’re so lucky this plastic sheet came like this. I didn’t experience what it was like to extract it — but to really be with the organism that a material comes from, I think it’s really important to experience that, and to know the ecosystem and how it affects the environment.”
Sasha’s practice is increasingly involved with methods of extraction, natural decay, and toxicity, and to speak on any of those facets is to speak on the importance of material.
Part of her material exploration started at the University of Texas at Austin where she studied studio art. While there, she created sculptural works out of resin, a moldable synthetic polymer. “I really fell in love with resin … I was just so excited about how versatile it was. No other material can really be as strong and lightweight as it can. I didn’t really understand how toxic it was.”
Resin’s versatility is owed in part to its initial liquid state. When liquid resin is combined with a hardener, they catalyze and solidify into a durable plastic. During the curing process, resins have been found to emit BPA and other carcinogenic substances, as well as formaldehyde vapors which irritate the skin, eyes, and respiratory system. Once hardened, resin is non-recyclable and does not biodegrade.
It was this toxicity that sparked Sasha’s interest in developing alternatives. Her issue was one that many artists are faced with; plastics, resins, and other non-sustainable materials are often the most durable and adaptable sculpting materials. Sasha explains: “I knew that [resin] was toxic, and I didn’t want to work with it in my apartment. I began to look for other ways to cast materials.”
So began Sasha’s journey into bioplastics. She explains her introduction to this research: “I was just reaching out to people, I ended up going to a show where there were these two artists, Haena Yoo and Sterling Wells, who had started to work with bioplastics and they had this crazy piece: you didn’t know what was rotting food, it had all these plastic containers, and there were all these bioplastics in it. It was just really exciting and weird. They were the ones that really inspired me to start working with bioplastics. When I was in New York, I had the time and space to really develop. I began to make all these experiments. The first ones were just cast gelatin and cornstarch, and I was just using kitchen equipment.
They looked beautiful at first and I thought I figured out a way to make a bio-based resin but then a couple of days later, they started to shrink and warp, and they got really moldy. I was really confused, but also curious about the mold that was growing on them.”
From the initial process of trial and error, Sasha expanded her material practice; she conducted individual research, enrolled in chemistry classes, and sought information wherever available. She had worked for an artist who pointed her in the direction of Genspace, a community biology laboratory in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her research has also connected her with BUGSS or Baltimore Under Ground Science Space, a non-profit laboratory in Baltimore, M.d. These types of open-source communities offer access to facilities and equipment for independent researchers and inquisitive artists like Sasha to hone their craft.
She eventually joined the Kornfield research lab at California Institute of Technology. She sent me an excerpt of her research abstract from her time at Caltech that describes her aims in developing new bioplastics: “The target material should be optically clear, strong, hydrophobic (repelling water) and versatile while being sustainable; notably it should be nontoxic, bio-based, and compostable in marine environments.” No small task.
Which brings us back to Sasha’s question: Why hagfish? And to my question: What on Earth are they? Smithsonian Magazine describes these primordial eel-like creatures as being “widely considered the most disgusting animals in the ocean, if not on earth.” As a defense mechanism, their ropey bodies exude stringy proteins which become thick, viscous slime upon contact with sea water, choking any would-be predators. Sasha kept five of these creatures in her studio. “I ended up falling in love with them … they’re very special.”
Sasha first came in contact with hagfish through the Fudge Lab at Chapman University located in Orange, Calif. She discovered Fudge Lab through Alie Ward’s the Ologies podcast, which has an episode all about these unusual creatures for those further interested.
As far as practical applications go, hagfish slime can be combined with a matrix of natural fibers to form a durable material. To form this matrix, Sasha’s work uses the fibrous substance chitosan, found in many shellfish. Chitosan is another miracle material Sasha has been experimenting with. In her research documentation she describes chitosan as “the second most abundant biopolymer after cellulose, [chitosan] makes up the exoskeletons of crustaceans, bugs, the cell walls of mycelium, strains of algae, and bones of cuttlefish. Chitosan is antimicrobial, edible, heat resistant, recyclable, compostable, and sourced from waste streams.”
Sasha has been conducting workshops to educate the public on the many uses for chitosan, as well as extraction techniques. She elaborates on the material and its applications: “I was really trying to be as mindful as possible about where all these things could go out of my control: supply chains, how it breaks down, and how long that takes.” Sasha points to an abundance of seafood waste as a possible source for chitosan on a large scale. “I was also doing all this research about plastics and where they’re going. All our plastics are going into the ocean. If they’re going to end up there regardless of what we do, it should come from the ocean first, too.”
An Issues Brief from the International Union for Conservation of Nature has found that at least 14 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year, and 80% of all marine debris found, from surface waters to deep-sea sediments, are plastic. Sasha is one of many people working to find creative solutions to this very real problem. There are a variety of commercially available biodegradable plastics; these are conventional polymers with additives that allow them to break down naturally. Additionally, researchers have explored plastic alternatives made from wood byproducts, grape waste from the winemaking industry, and milk proteins, to name a few. To solve an issue of such scale, a transformation of viewpoint is necessary, and it can be achieved through a diversity of approaches, conventional techniques, and a willingness to explore unconventional materials.
When I ask Sasha how she identifies the work she does, she tells me her art and her research go hand-in-hand:
“I definitely am an artist; I feel like I’m also a researcher … maybe I’m a wannabe scientist. I really admire the sciences and how rigorous they are. It’s been really interesting to compare and contrast the ways that we work.” She explains that straddling disciplines allows her to draw from many reference points. “Being an artist enables me to look at pop culture, look at the lizards outside, look at plants … that freedom of not having to be doing this rigid thing, I think really allows me to push what I want to do and explore new things.”
As far as those new things are concerned, Sasha is busy imagining applications for her work that accentuate the versatility of the material.
“I did a whole installation for BMW with holographic chitosan and that’s the kind of thing that I really want to do more of … because that is what biomaterials are really good for, when there are photoshoots or short-term events that they pay all this money for, and all these plastics go into [them]. I think that’s the most feasible application right now for the work that I make. It also gives me the opportunity to make something bigger, and it gives me the resources to do something I wouldn’t have been able to do before.”
Sasha shows me some examples of her holographic chitosan, a little copper armature draped in an iridescent sheet, which she tells me is derived from shrimp shells. It’s remarkably plastic-like in appearance and demonstrates what a convincing dupe chitosan can be in the right hands. When I refer to the work she does as an almost alchemical process, Sasha tells me that’s a terminology she’s warming up to.
Sasha is currently working to expand the commercial uses for these materials and is open to going where the research will take her. For now, she is pursuing an MFA in Sculpture at Columbia University and continues to work on her bioplastic research that she continued at Alta Sea. At Columbia she is also working with the Campos lab on carbon capture materials and the Axel lab with cuttlefish. Sasha is represented by Below Grand NYC and recently released a book about her experience with her hagfish, available on her website.
 Hannah Waters, “14 Fun Facts about Hagfish.” Smithsonian, Smithsonian.com, 17 Oct. 2012, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/14-fun-facts-about-hagfish-77165589/.
IUCN. “Marine Plastic Pollution.” IUCN, 25 May 2018, http://www.iucn.org/resources/issues-briefs/marine-plastic-pollution#:~:text=Over%20300%20million%20tons%20of
Maria Trimarchi, et al. “Top 10 Eco-Friendly Substitutes for Plastic.” HowStuffWorks, 9 Apr. 2021, science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-tech/sustainable/5-plastic-substitutes.htm.
Conversations with Calli Layton. Written by Calli Layton. Edited by Maya Quarker & Jess Lo.
Page design by Emily Hartwig.