Grown from Root – Sustainable, Sculptural, Wearable!

Zena Holloway explores the interweaving properties of root systems and crafts unique artefacts, across fashion, art and design. To her, roots are the invisible building blocks for our natural world – the foundations for life. Holloway, who is also a renowned underwater photographer, began her project Rootfull out of frustration with the dramatic plastic pollution of the oceans. The goal of her work is to show the beauty and vulnerability of the marine environment and its inhabitants, and to promote their protection. We spoke with Zena to learn more about her thinking, her creative process, and her relationship with nature.

Zena Holloway - Rootful, Ingrid Ruegemer, Symbioscene, Symbiocene
Zena Holloway - Rootful, Ingrid Ruegemer, Symbioscene, Symbiocene
Zena Holloway - Rootful, Ingrid Ruegemer, Symbioscene, Symbiocene

Zena, you can look back on a very successful career as an underwater photographer. A few years ago, however, you expanded your creative practice and started the project “Rootfull”, which is dedicated to the exploration of root growth. You utilize the binding properties of roots to grow unique artefacts: from clothes and wearable accessories, to functional lampshades and sculptural objects. What triggered this pioneering project and what fascinates you about root?
A few years ago, I reached a tipping point where I felt I should move from trying to do ‘less harm’ and move to trying to do ‘more good’ for the natural world. The effects of our material choices and global warming are written all over the ocean floor from dead coral to plastic pollution. It felt like a good time to put the camera down for a while and start something new and sustainable. I think it was originally an article in a magazine about bio-design that set me off. I grew mushrooms for a while, rather naively hoping to solve the problem of plastic pollution, and soon realised that I’d need a laboratory and 10 years of my life to make any headway with mycelium. However around that time I stumbled across the roots of a willow tree in my local river. It got me wondering about the binding properties of root: What if we could grow our clothes from seed? That was in 2018 and ever since I’ve had growing trays of experimental seed on the go at any one time.

Can you tell us a bit more about the making process of your grown artefacts? 
The seed is spread over beeswax templates that I intricately carve with patterns that resemble coral. As it grows the roots seek out the lowest point and move into the pattern where they bond together and make the basis for my artefacts. It only takes about 10 days to get to the point of harvest, all the water is reused, and nothing is wasted. I dry the root, sometimes I colour it with natural dyes and then I set it into shapes with beeswax. The wax acts as a preservative and makes it stronger.

In your exploration of the binding properties of roots, you have surely experienced numerous setbacks until you have reached todays level of sophistication in your work. What significance did scientific research or even exchange with scientists play here?
Oh yes, there were many, many set backs at the start. I think it took a full year to be able to grow the seed reliably. As soon as I thought I understood the plants they would go mouldy or not grow properly. After a great deal of Googling I now, finally understand the environmental issues that affect seed and the ideal conditions for growing. It takes time to really get to learn this and it’s a practical knowledge best learned by experience rather than learning from a book or such. The biggest Eureka moment was discovering that the root can grow against beeswax. I’d been struggling with the templates for ages and trying different materials, many of which hadn’t worked. I was keen to find a sustainable, natural material that could be used at scale so this was an amazing find. The root minds a lot about what it grows next to. Some materials hamper growth and it doesn’t know how to respond to them. I still have many questions about seed latency and others which I’d love to find answers to. So far, my questions to the scientific community haven’t produced any answers. I think what I’m asking is so specific that it’s difficult to find the right biologists who can advise.

Roots are a living material. As an artist and designer you create the framework in which your artefacts can grow, but the roots ultimately shape the end result. Could this be described as a process of co-creation with nature? Or how do you see your role here?
I think it’s very much a co-creation or collaboration with nature. I merely influence the direction that the root takes but nature does all the hard work. I guess that’s the essence of bio-design and what’s lovely about working with root is that its such a simple process that even a child can understand. 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? The root is a wonderful poster-child for bio-design and the wider material revolution.

At first glance, your love for the underwater world and your fascination with root growth seem to be two separate passions. For you, however, the two appear to be strongly connected. Your sculptures evoke associations of marine creatures and have names such as Medusa or Sea Sponge. Could you elaborate on that?
When I started to grow root at the beginning, they could have taken any shape but I think all the years of swimming in the ocean drew me back to marine references. In my mind the root bears a strong resemblance to coral, both physically and metaphorically. Roots are the building blocks for plant life; corals are the equivalent for sea life. Coral reefs support 25% of all marine life but scientists predict they could all be gone by 2050 due to global warming.  My response is to grow a sculptural coral reef to increase awareness of materials and to inspire a more thoughtfully crafted, sustainable world.

How do you see the role of designers in relation to transformative change?
We are entering a golden age of design where material intelligence is key. We need to learn how to rebuild our material world but this time we need to do it with nature and sustainability at the core.

What is your vision of your project Rootful?
I’m currently working on a series of root luminaires that will light up a room and could also be seen as sculptural objects that resemble coral. Ultimately, I’d like to make the root useful and I think it could have a role to play in fashion.

Artist Profile
Zena Holloway is a photographer, maker and material innovator. She grows sustainable sculpture and fashion from grass root and in doing so takes an intuitive leap into the future to imagine a material world that is grown, not made. As an underwater photographer she was looking for solutions to the problem of plastic pollution in our oceans when she came across the roots of a willow tree growing in her local river. The tangled root looked like textile: What if we could grow clothes from seed? 
Zena has pioneered a new technique of growing wheatgrass into templates carved from beeswax. Over 12 days the shoots grow to 20cm while the roots bind below to form a naturally woven structure. With sustainability at the heart of the process, the ingredients are organic and locally sourced. Water is reused from run off and any leftover shoot, seed or root is eaten as animal fodder. Coral reefs support 25% of all marine life but scientists predict they could all be gone by 2050 due to global warming. Zena’s response is grow a sculptural coral reef to increase awareness of materials and to inspire a more thoughtfully crafted, sustainable world.

Images: © Zena Holloway

Ingrid Ruegemer

Fields of Expertise: Art, Craft, Design