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Women Mind the Water Podcast Series: Lisa Shaw, Scotland

As told by Lisa Shaw
Findhorn, Scotland

Story Narrative:

A woman with a black shirt and sunglasses on her head stands in a garden.

Submitted as part of the Women Mind the Water (WMW) digital stories project produced by Pam Ferris-Olson, in conjunction with Stories from Main Street and the traveling exhibition "Water/Ways." This story is one in a series created for a podcast in 2022, featuring regional and international artists whose inspiration blends conversation, activism, science, and water. Find earlier stories from the WMW initiative by searching for "Women Mind the Water" on this website.

In all aspects, Lisa’s work demonstrates a woman deeply connected to water. She creates functional art that improves both the environment and people’s lives. Lisa is cofounder of the Scottish-based company Biomatrix Water. Their work involves the creation of floating islands or habitats that restore water quality, ecological habitat, and human connection to nature. Biomatrix Water does this with an interdisciplinary approach combining art, nature, and technology. Lisa explains how art and technology can work along with nature to heal urban eyesores and restore fresh water, estuarine, and even marine environments.

Pam Ferris-Olson (00:01): Today on the Women Mind the Water Artivist Series, I am speaking with Lisa Shaw. Lisa is an artist, designer, and educator. She is a founding partner and art director of Biomatrix Water, a company that combines art, nature, and technology to create solutions to issues in water pollution and habitat degradation. In her own time, Lisa is an award-winning painter.

Pam Ferris-Olson (00:27): The Women Mind the Water Artivist Series engages artists in conversation about their work and explores your connection with the ocean. Through their stories, Women Mind the Water hopes to inspire and encourage action to protect the ocean and her creatures.

Pam Ferris-Olson (00:43): I am excited to welcome Lisa Shaw to the Women Mind the Water Artivist Series podcast. In all aspects, Lisa's work demonstrates a woman deeply connected to water. She creates functional art that improves both the environment and people's lives. Lisa is co-founder of the Scottish based company, Biomatrix Water. Their work involves the creation of floating islands, or habitats, that restore water quality, ecological habitat, and human connection to nature. Biomatrix Water does this with an interdisciplinary approach, combining art, nature, and technology.

Pam Ferris-Olson (01:24): Welcome, Lisa. I am looking forward to sharing your work with listeners. I think listeners will be fascinated with how art and technology can work along with nature to heal urban eye sores and restore fresh water, estuarian, and even marine environments. I encourage listeners to watch the video version of this podcast to see what we are discussing. Lisa, thank you for joining us today. I think this is going to be a fascinating podcast.

Lisa Shaw (01:55): Aw, thank you, Pam. I'm really happy to be with you.

Pam Ferris-Olson (01:58): So I'd like to begin by exploring the journey that brought you to where you are today. I listened to your 2016 TEDx talk and you had the audience laughing when you talked about the field trips you took as a child with your family. Would you share one of these stories with listeners?

Lisa Shaw (02:16): Yes. When I was doing that talk, I talked about the kinds of holidays that we would go on and they usually would involve not necessarily trips to the beach or lovely outings or amusement park, but instead we would visit the local wastewater treatment facilities or open sewage canals, depending on where we were in the world. And that was because my father, he worked in wastewater treatment.

Lisa Shaw (02:50): He worked together with the inventor, Dr. John Todd. And together, they built living machines, which are quite a special form of wastewater treatment. They're a natural form using biological processes within a greenhouse, and they have plants and fish and aeration, and the microorganisms that live on the roots of the plants help to break down the pathogens that's in the waste water.

Lisa Shaw (03:17): So my dad was very passionate about this work, very inspired by it. And I think, as is the case when you run your own business, it kind of entered into all of our aspects of our lives. Our dinner table conversation often ended up being about wastewater. It kind of always came down to shit, we would say sometimes. So that's a bit of a family joke.

Pam Ferris-Olson (03:43): Well, I can see how inspirational it is because I imagine that some people with the kind of background that you have would, and I'm going to make a terrible pun here, poo pooed wastewater, when they got to be adults, but with your journey, you seem to have embraced it. How did art become part of this journey?

Lisa Shaw (04:04): Well, when I was young, I was always drawing and creating things. And I think that my parents really supported me in my art. And at the same time, my dad really included me in his work. When I was 10 years old, I flew on my own to help to cut the ribbon and launch one of their experimental projects within a lake in Massachusetts. We were living that time in Vermont.

Lisa Shaw (04:38): And I think because of his passion, and probably because of those unusual family holidays as well, I was really aware of environmental problems and I wanted to be a part of the solution. And I also was passionate about art and I went on to get BFA and an MFA in art. And I knew that I wanted to combine the two with what I ended up doing.

Pam Ferris-Olson (05:07): So tell me, where did the idea for Biomatrix Water come from?

Lisa Shaw (05:12): Well, I met my now husband, Galen Fulford, in 1998 and he was very inspired as well by my dad's work. And he began to train with him. And one of the first projects that he did once he had learned some of the techniques was to travel to Palmyra Atol, which is a thousand miles off of Hawaii. It's a very special place where the scientists there were doing research and he helped to build a constructed wetland for treating the wastewater from their facility there. And he was swimming with sharks and seeing these huge coconut crabs. And it was just a really life changing experience and opportunity for him.

Lisa Shaw (06:01): And he continued to work together with my dad and I joined them and we started to do some other kind of exciting international projects around constructed wetlands for wastewater treatment. One of them, we went to India and we were working in Andhra Pradesh cleaning the wastewater from three hospitals there.

Lisa Shaw (06:26): And even at that stage, I felt like community outreach involvement was really important. And one way to do that was through art. And so I worked with community groups to paint murals on the walls of the hospitals about the projects that we were doing there, the wastewater treatment and the water cycle and how that would relate to their lives.

Lisa Shaw (06:52): We also worked another quite exciting project was in Hong Kong, in the botanical gardens. There we recycled all the wastewater from the toilet block into constructed wetlands. And then it came back treated and disinfected to be used again within the toilet. So it was a closed loop system and that were really evolved into what is Biomatrix. We moved to Scotland in 2006, and we decided at that point that we wanted to focus on floating systems, floating gardens.

Lisa Shaw (07:29): And these mainly go into urban locations where the waterways are degraded or polluted, or there's just not a lot of life. Often these can be kind of hard edged. So you can imagine a concrete or a sheet pile edge and life can't really take hold. To be able to grow life really needs to have texture. And it needs to have things which aren't too smooth, which aren't too hard. And so what we're doing is we're creating these platforms from natural materials and recycled materials, which plants can be planted into. And then they can create what's looks like a natural river bed.

Lisa Shaw (08:19): So you might see one of our floating ecosystems along the side of a canal, and you might think it actually was a natural river bed in a natural water location. And then we also put in floating islands into those locations and they become a place for birds to nest. They become a place that attracts, the flowers attract bees and butterflies and pollinators. And then under the water, the fish like to shelter from predators, they like to eat from the plant roots. And then the roots themselves are helping to clean the water and to improve the water quality.

Pam Ferris-Olson (08:58): Other than painting murals where does the art artists come in? Are you involved in what flowers to put or at what point to where in the floating island to put it, how does your artistry fit into Biomatrix Water?

Lisa Shaw (09:17): Yeah, well, we don't do murals in Biomatrix anymore. That was really early work that my husband and I were doing. But now we actually think of the floating ecosystems, the floating gardens themselves as art pieces. In many ways, they are a sculpture that is creating marks on the surface of the water. And sometimes we've actually worked the kind of impetus for the work or the people who've gotten in contact with us have actually been because they want to do an art project. So were a part of the Contrary Life Art Trail in [inaudible 00:09:56], in Belgium. And we put in a series of floating islands right in the center of town that as the plants bloom in the different seasons, they change, and they become kind of this attraction for people to come and see and wonder at.

Lisa Shaw (10:11): We also did a project in Finland called the Magic of Water, working with an artist there. And working together with art students, they made a series of rocks of different shapes that were really sculptural kind of rocks. And they were specifically for black-headed gulls to be able to come and nest. And there was also a mist machine that created this kind of amazing atmosphere around the ecosystems. And we've done other local projects combining kind of art and technology.

Pam Ferris-Olson (10:48):Are there other firms like yours or is yours still a unique niche?

Lisa Shaw (10:53): There are other businesses that are also making kind of floating habitats or floating wetlands, but I think that our design approach is different, our materials are unique, and also in terms of the materials, one of the things we're really proud of is that we use recycled and recycle materials, or natural materials, that are biodegradable. And the plants are obviously one of the most important parts of the design. And usually those are native plants.

Pam Ferris-Olson (11:27): So I know you've done a wonderful explanation and people who are going to watch the video will see what you're talking about. And I know that many of them are in urban settings and they're on freshwater, but I believe you're currently developing an underwater project to hang below docks and marinas. Can you tell me more about this project?

Lisa Shaw (11:52): Yeah. We're beginning to get really interested in working in estuary and then seawater locations and in the oceans. And we have done some floating gardens already. And so we've had to adapt to find plants that are salt tolerant. And a lot of the focus is actually on the underwater life and providing underwater habitat.

Lisa Shaw (12:17): So one of the products that we're currently developing, we call it shelter shells, and they hang underwater and they can go underneath kind of docks or marinas or floating ecosystems or other platforms. And they become a habitat for fish and others sea life to be able to take hold. And it's really been a very artistic, creative process making the shelter shells.

Lisa Shaw (12:42): We began with working with clay and just having it at our kitchen table and our kids were playing with it too. And we looked at lots of different shells and we started to create different shapes and make different textures. Some of it pressing the shells into it, finding different things that we could use to make textures, cutting holes in it. And we wanted to create spaces that fish could enter into and hide as well as textures that different sea life could kind of clinging onto.

Lisa Shaw (13:12): And eventually we settled on a shell design and then we created a mold out of rubber and then that mold can then be cast in concrete and it attaches onto a chain that can then hang underneath the platforms. And there could many, there could be 15 different shells that could hang beneath if it was very deep. And our plan is to have slightly different designs, different sizes that could be combined to create this underwater habitat. That's really great for sea water.

Pam Ferris-Olson (13:44): What made you think that the area underneath the docks needed more habitat? Were you diving underneath and going, "Gee, this looks a little barren?"

Lisa Shaw (13:57): Not personally diving, but just through our work, we kept getting asked by people. Do you do sea water locations? We began to notice that this was actually a real interest and a need to have more life in the marinas and that sort of thing, because I think other people were diving and seeing that there wasn't actually all that much going on there.

Pam Ferris-Olson (14:20): Tell me about your Flotsam Island project I've seen a few pictures on various websites, but I'm not really clear whether it's a project that was done as a conceptualization of an idea or an actual endeavor?

Lisa Shaw (14:37): Yeah. Thank you. The Flotsam Island project came about, I was looking at photographs of the plastic rubbish in the oceans and feeling really concerned about this. And in the images I kept noticing that there would be mangrove seeds or coconuts, or somehow there were seeds that were in these images. And I had this idea, "Well, what if the plastic rubbish was made into floating islands, could they then grow? Could the seeds start to sprout up?"

Lisa Shaw (15:13): And so it was really an art project and I gathered floating rubbish on local beaches. I live near the beach here in Scotland and put it into fishing net and spiraled it around and made it into a floating island, which I planted with plants. And then it was exhibited in a gallery in London called [inaudible 00:15:36] within a big tank.

Pam Ferris-Olson (15:37): Clearly you're very passionate about what you do. What you find most rewarding about your work?

Lisa Shaw (15:44): It's wonderful to see the life coming back to degraded waterways, that places that were polluted or full of rubbish, having the rubbish cleaned up and then having them become full of flowers and of plants. And then it's also about the joy that being connected with nature brings to local people.

Lisa Shaw (16:09): I was recently in London and I had a painting that was part of an art exhibition there. And I went for the opening, but at the same time, I took an extra day and visited some of our projects to photograph them and to be there. And in one of them, there had been ducklings that had just been born and signets that had just been born and there was a family there and I started chatting with them and they said, "Oh yes, we come here every day to check when they were sitting on the nest and they've hatched now. And we're so delighted. And now we're coming to check on the babies." And I could just see how important it was for them to feel connected to nature and to wildlife, even within the heart of the city.

Pam Ferris-Olson (16:54): How do you describe yourself as an artist? Are you a painter, a visual artist, or something else?

Lisa Shaw (17:00): I guess I think of myself as an artist and that encompasses many different aspects. Painting is definitely one of my passions. And I find that having a studio practice kind of helps me keep my sanity and sense of balance in life. And it does inform my other work. And sometimes I've even had opportunities to meld the two.

Lisa Shaw (17:29): There was a project locally, a place called Brody Castle, and there's a big pond there. And in the pond, we worked with groups of school children to plant a series of six small floating islands. And then at the same time, I created a series of paintings inspired by the pond, by the underwater life of the pond, and by the floating ecosystems themselves, that was exhibited in the stables of the castle. So it was a nice kind of interweaving of my two passions.

Pam Ferris-Olson (18:01): Right? Well, so you're an installation artist in terms of what you do for Biomatrix Water and then your storyteller with your painting. And I think that's lovely. I did read in your biography that you won the 2021 Holly Bush Women's Painter Award for Best Abstract Painting. And apparently you created it out of trash? Tell me more.

Lisa Shaw (18:32): Thank you. Yes, that was really exciting. And I guess that similar to the Flotsam Island project came out of a concern that I felt about seeing all this plastic rubbish in the oceans, and I feel a real deep connection with the ocean. I love living by the sea and I've painted many times the ocean and the tide pools, the waves, water is really a huge theme, the only theme I would say in my art, is water.

Lisa Shaw (19:02): But this was the first time that I painted what I kind of think of as contemporary landscape painting in that it actually incorporates the human impact on nature and often destructive influence of this. And so I painted the floating plastic rubbish in the water. And I think one of the things that's a little bit disturbing about these paintings is that they're also very beautiful. So they're kind of horrible and beautiful at the same time.

Lisa Shaw (19:35): And I think that this helps us to feel the contradiction about our relationship with nature and hopefully to bring more kind of presence and awareness and emotion into that relationship.

Pam Ferris-Olson (19:51): All right. So in your TEDx talk, you talked about your philosophy about regenerative actions and how deeply beautiful they are. Can you explain what you mean by deep beauty and regenerative action?

Lisa Shaw (20:07): Well, I believe that we all have a need for beauty and especially the beauty of nature really feeds us and really meets us in a way that nothing else can, but too many of the things that we make are superficially beautiful. But if you look at their birth with the extraction of resources leading to degradation, and they have maybe a moment of beauty in the brief life, but then again in their death they become kind of rubbish on the rubbish heap.

Lisa Shaw (20:39): And so when I think about deep beauty, I think about something that would be beautiful in birth, in life, and in death, that it's produced ethically with awareness and sensitivity to the origins of the materials, that it's reused or recycled whenever possible. And then that in its death, it feeds new life instead of becoming rubbish in the way that nature the waste product of one is food for another.

Lisa Shaw (21:10): So I think we all have a longing and a drive to express our creativity. That we're all in a way artists. That creativity has been fundamental to the survival of our species. It's what led to cities, to wealth, to products, to art, to stories, to systems, and myths. But if we don't express this creative longing in meaningful ways, and I think many of us have repressed it, then that can lead to a state of emptiness and kind of longing, wanting that's easy to fill with consumption

Pam Ferris-Olson (21:50): What I love about what you do, and there's so many things in terms of sustainability and in creativity and promoting healthy communities through the water, is that you're also paying a wonderful honor to your father carrying on his legacy, what he was doing, and it's bloomed into something even more beautiful than the practical biological aspects of what he did. So I'm going to ask you if you have any suggestions for listeners on how they might protect and enhance their local waterways?

Lisa Shaw (22:30): I think that one thing that we can do is think about how can our lives and our actions be regenerative? To regenerate means to renew, to revive, to restore. And one of the ways to do that is to look to waste, to rubbish, or to degraded places as a place to begin. And these could even be inside ourselves. I think many artists would say that some of their best work has come from some of their darkest times or some of their most difficult, painful experiences.

Pam Ferris-Olson (23:06): Like everything you've said today, I can feel the passion and it's expansive. You embrace a community of people and offer them ways to feel engaged. And I think that's lovely. And I want to thank you for being on the Women Mind the Water podcast. I enjoy talking about interdisciplinary approaches to solving issues that negatively impact Earth's water.

Pam Ferris-Olson (23:35): All too often, restorative actions seem one sided in their approach. It is inspiring to meet an artist who embraces collaboration, both in terms of designing solutions and including the community that will be most impacted. I'm grateful for what you do and for sharing a little of this with our listeners.

Pam Ferris-Olson (23:58): I'd like to remind listeners that I've been speaking with Lisa Shaw for the Women Mind the Water podcast series. This series can be viewed on An audio only version of this podcast is available on the Women Mind the Water website on iTunes and other sites. Women Mind the Water is grateful to Jane Rice for the use of her song, Women of Water. All rights for the Women Mind the Water name and logo belong to Pam Ferris-Olson. This is Pam Ferris-Olson.

Asset ID: 2022.04.16
Themes: Habitats, water quality, nature, education, technology, family, fathers, waste water, medical waste, water cycle, wetlands, floating ecosystems, floating gardens, urban landscapes, native plants, beauty, abstraction
Date recorded: July 31, 2022
Length of recording: 24:29 m
Related traveling exhibition: Water/Ways
Sponsor or affiliated organization: Women Mind the Water
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