© 2022

From Root To Sculpture To Wearables: With Zena Holloway

Designer, Images ZENA HOLLOWAY / ZH
Words, Interview MARYAM ARSHAD

Material ROOT


From diving into bodies of water to growing mushrooms in a basement, biology has embedded itself at the foundation of Zena Holloway’s creative practices. Bio-design - adopting and transforming biological and naturally occurring phenomena that already exists - challenges design at its core. Understandably, coming from an underwater photography studio, Holloway’s practice veered towards a material found in abundance - root. This material would undergo growth, renewal and transformation, emerging as captivating sculptures and striking wearable fashion. They are intricate, reminiscent of both biological and ecological elements, and alluring. In merely 12 days, a seed is nurtured and becomes root, and a material with countless possibilities materialises. Embedded within a beeswax mould, the root takes its own form, each time distinct and each time fascinating to watch. For Holloway, this is moving away from a traditional assembly line approach and towards material futures which are “beautiful”. One look at the exquisite critical coral sculpture collection, or Holloway’s more recent collaborative root and seaweed leather wearable is all it takes to be drawn to the striking, innovative and growing collection of works.

Holloway’s practice and design centres around harnessing natural and sustainable physical objects and ideas. From a seemingly simple element found in the natural environment, the power lies in Holloway’s ability to pave and navigate design and innovation toward a fresh, unique and aware future. Bio-design in itself is traversing across an innovative and crucial path. Designers need to be aligning themselves with these principles - repurposing, renewing, minimising waste. Principles that direct and steer the way towards circular environments. The abundance of materials, pre-existing and available for integrating, means that this is just one possibility. The possibilities for altering and repurposing, in harmony with ecological systems, are unparalleled. Mushrooms, algae, clay, root, seaweed, hemp, salt, sunflower seeds. The future of material design and creativity is overflowing with potential. Holloway’s mindset, practice and works are proof that material futures can be reframed, and be extraordinary.

The unique nature and intersection of Rootfull is what makes it magnetic. It harnesses, nurtures, innovates, and creates across each stage. A seed becomes a woven, raw root structure. A structure becomes an ethereal sculpture and a piece of breathtaking clothing. Holloway’s works - visually and literally - are elemental. In stimulating conversation with Zena Holloway we spoke about Rootfull and what it embodies, and symbiotic design as a practice and vessel fusing biology, material design, and sustainability from beginning to end.

You started out growing mushrooms in your basement. How did your experimenting and practice in this first emerge?

ZH My background as a scuba instructor always brings me full circle back to water.  For me water = nature.  When we descend into water it’s like descending into the belly of the Earth with water acting as a kind of bridge that connects us to the natural world. It’s a raw and primitive emotion that has origins stretching back 375 million years to when the first organism crawled out of the sea.

The urgency of the climate crises, pollution and biodiversity loss fuels my interest in the material revolution and the idea that we can build our world from biology, not oil. We are at a rare time in history when we have access to tools and knowledge we’ve never had before and there’s a growing community of scientists, artists and designers exploring the intersection of design and nature. Who would have thought that it was possible to grow a chair out of mycelium, insulate buildings with seaweed, or make clothes from algae? It was these examples that inspired me to buy a block of shiitake mycelium a few years ago and get stuck in to see what I could make using natural processes.

What drew you to roots specifically, out of the extensive library of (bio)materials?

ZH It was a chance encounter with two very different root systems.  The first was the most incredible tree that hung out over a freshwater cenote in Mexico and the other was a much less dramatic, flurry of little red willow roots growing into the river Dour, UK. The weaving and binding properties that I’d witnessed in mycelium got me wondering if plant roots could be grown into textile or sculpture.

The seeds go through a transformative change, from small ecological elements to building blocks for sculptures. What is like designing with roots?

ZH I started by learning how to grow roots. It took me quite a while to understand how much water, temperature, light and air-circulation was required to get a good result. As with any kind of gardening it’s a lot of fun to plant something and return later to find that it’s flourished whilst you’ve been gone. In that respect growing roots is not labour intensive but with each test I harvest I find I have a lot more questions about what could be possible.  The process is interesting, exciting, rewarding and at times disheartening but most of the time it feels like there’s a sea of possibilities out there.

How easy was it locate and maintain the balance between material design alongside sustainable objectives?

ZH Working sustainably is at the heart of my practice and when I first started in bio-design I spent a lot of time researching natural alternatives for products like glue, varnish, dye and clay.  The more I researched, the more I realised there are plenty of effective, natural and sustainable options; ‘life hacks’ that aren’t marketed and promoted by big brands. Amongst other things my studio cupboard now contains a healthy supply of old newspaper for making clay, corn starch for glue, shellac for varnish and a 5l jerry can of white vinegar for cleaning.  I use rain run-off from the building to water the roots and local beeswax for moulds.  I buy seed from a local organic farmer and the birds in my garden eat whatever is left over after I’ve harvested the roots. I haven’t found ways to be sustainable with everything, but I do my best to use local materials, recycle everything possible and keep waste to a minimum.

12 days is all it takes. Where design is crucial for addressing environmental challenges, how significant is this short duration in being able to direct and create a material that has powerful potential?

ZH That’s the beauty of bio-design.  If we can find ways to collaborate with nature, to harness her systems and processes to build our environment it would be a very beautiful solution to many of the environmental problems that face us.  We’re programmed to think about design as an assembly line of machined parts that fit together to make a product. We’re all accountable for the products we buy and the materials we use in everyday life so I extend this notion to my practice. Growing root to make garments or objects challenges this process. Roots are a basic building block of nature so when they become a dress or take shape into something inspired by man I think it’s a surprise to most people that nature can be harnessed in this way. The act of using root to grow an object in 12 days is very simple but the concept is far reaching.

Roots are no longer just the building blocks for trees and plants. Rootfull is fresh, it paves a route that opens up new ideas for material and design futures. Where do you see this going?

ZH I’m still developing methods of growing root and by using products from my kitchen I can make the pieces flexible or stiff, light or dark. I’m wondering what happens if I grow the root onto other materials and how different plant roots compare.  Quite honestly, I have no idea how far I can take this material beyond sculpture and wearables, but I bet the first humans to harvest cotton took a while to make woven cloth! Either way I’m enjoying the ride and loving the experimental process.

Some of the sculptures, those reminiscent of coral, engage critically and visually with several environmental issues. What did this focus stem from?

ZH From the beginning the little white root threads reminded me of bleached coral but the idea gained momentum as it developed. It struck me that there was a parallel between the underground life of roots and the underwater life of coral; both shape and support their environment. While roots are the building blocks for plant life, corals are the equivalent for sea life.

Recently I learned that corals support 25% of marine life by providing food and habitat.  I think everyone is aware by now that corals are in trouble but not everyone knows how vital they are to the health of our oceans. Temperatures in the sea are rising and coral is dying at an alarming rate. It’s predicted that if we do nothing it will virtually all be gone in 30 years and if that isn’t bad enough, hidden in the wings is the threat of ocean acidification which could dissolve all shellfish. In both instances the likely result is widespread species collapse. The irony is that our oceans represent one of the biggest opportunities for slowing and reversing climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide.

With this as my backdrop I’ve purposefully used biomimicry to grow the roots into coral sculptures in a bid to champion ocean conservation.

The parallels and connections between root and coral embodied in the sculptures have resulted in emotive and beautiful pieces. Where do you think the works will go from here?

ZH Thank you. It makes me very happy to feel the root sculptures are considered beautiful and emotive. My plan is to grow a coral reef installation and create as many different varieties of coral as possible, but I think there’s also lots of potential in wearables and I’m enjoying collaborating with other artists to employ bio-plastic and seaweed in some of these designs. I just allow myself to be led by the material and follow the roots!

Aside from sculptures, wearables are also an element of rootfull. These are just as captivating, if not more so in a different way altogether. What were the steps like from root to wearable fashion?

ZH Figures have always played a big role in my photography.  I use the human body as a vessel to make visual connections to the natural world and create a narrative. In photography its easier for the viewer to be drawn in to figurative imagery so it seemed a natural progression to grow the coral sculptures into pieces that could be worn. By making the root sculptures wearable it brings the conversation back to ourselves and to climate change.

How do you think artists and designers can begin to, or further embed themselves within sustainable design?

ZH My path began with a classic book called The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert and swiftly followed by researching bio-design online. This led me onto some very strange activities like scooping out green algae from ponds, collecting seaweed along the beach, growing mushrooms on logs and eventually I found my way to the humble root with a few grass seeds I had collected in my local park.

Is there anything in particular that you has stimulated your ideas and works?

ZH I recently stumbled across a Ted Ex talk given in 2015 by Neri Oxman. She speaks about her search for ways in which digital fabrication technologies can interact with the biological world and amongst other ideas she pioneers a new age of symbiosis between biology and our built environment that’s visionary. She and her team employed silkworms to make a pavilion and they have found a way to 3D print with glass. Their work is always inspirational.

Is there anything you would like to experiment with as part of your ongoing bio-design work?

ZH I’m bubbling over with questions and ideas to move the root designs along and I’m wide open for collaborations with other bio-designer and botanical specialists. I’m wondering if it’s possible to make large scale templates using computational design and if it’s possible to change the properties of root with synthetic biology? I read about a lab working to harvest energy from plants and another group of biologists who can make plants glow - so right now I’m not ruling anything out!  Fundamentally I hope that my work with roots will give a visceral power to the reality of climate change and perhaps also help to shift perceptions towards designing with material ecology.  Either way I’ll just keep growing root and see where the tide takes me.

Zena Holloway is a self-taught, British artist generally found working in underwater environments. For many years her practice has focused on environmental issues affecting oceans, rivers and lakes. Her aim is to uncover a human connection to these wonderful but often depleted environments. More recently this direction has led her into bio-designing with root.


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