For 25 years Zena Holloway has been a commercial and fine-art underwater photographer, a journey that would take her across oceans around the world. Now a new project, Rootfull, has taken her on a different tack – making sustainable wearables and sculptures from wheatgrass roots.

The project combines Holloway’s concern over the impact of global heating on the ocean, especially on coral, and her growing awareness of how water conceals the damage that human beings inflict upon it. “I approached Rootful with this baggage behind me. I wanted to do something more to help and so I started becoming more interested in bio-design,” she tells me, adding that she thought there must surely be a better way to respect Nature and build the environment through sustainable use of material.

Her focus on roots was inspired while photographing a British river system in 2018, when she spotted a complex network of bright red willow roots in the water. She had already begun growing mushrooms as part of her bio-design explorations and was tuning in to the binding properties of the natural material through the intricate structure of mycelial networks. The tree-root encounter led her to consider the idea of growing and making patterns using an interwoven network of roots. What followed was a series of experiments in her studio, growing wheatgrass roots in various materials and contexts, until she finally decided on beeswax as the most suitable medium.

Holloway hopes that even as an artistic concept her work will make people think more deeply and consciously about materiality, in terms of both being consumers in daily life and recognising the possibilities of bio-design. In reference to her fashion pieces, for instance, she talks about the hugely polluting, unsustainable fashion industry and offers ‘root fashion’ as part of the larger solution. “We ultimately wish to be in a place where we do not create waste and everything goes around in a circular economy,” she says.

Apart from her wearables, Holloway’s fan coral root sculptures celebrate the beauty of their frameworks as well as championing ocean conservation. Given that the project was rooted in her concerns about the loss of coral due to bleaching, the sculptures reiterate what she describes as being in a perpetually “underwater head-space”, influencing the shapes and patterns she sees and makes elsewhere. “Roots are building blocks for the land, while coral is similarly so underwater. It is critical to the health of oceans,” she explains.

Holloway says she feels protective about the roots, displaying a “custodian feeling towards the material”, adding that, while she finds wheatgrass the most effective grass to work with because it grows the quickest and most consistently, she has also experimented with rye, barley and oat during the initial stages. “There are 11,400 grass species and I am hopeful that more people will discover different qualities and properties in them in the future.”

Zena Holloway is exhibiting work at Material Matters in London from 22 to 25 September 2022 and Groundwork Gallery in Norfolk from 14 October to 16 December 2022.

Priyanka Sacheti is an independent writer based in Bangalore, India.