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Sweat, Tears & Crystals:
An Interview With Alice Potts
“Sweat is one of those really empowering things where I can show the purest version of a person."
~ Alice Potts
In a time when we're constantly reminded of what makes us different, it can seem like there are few things that truly unite us. As Alice Potts points out, sweat is one of those things. No matter where you're from, what you look like, or how much money you earn, everybody sweats, and quite a lot in fact: “there's one statistic that says you sweat 276 gallons a year, which technically is enough to fuel a mini RV for a certain amount of time,” Potts tells DLISH.
The idea of removing labels and showing how similar we all really are is just one of the components that inspire the work of Alice Potts, a British artist, designer and material innovator that's made a name for growing crystals from human sweat.
“I find it really hard that people are divided nowadays and there is a certain way you have to look and a certain way you have to be,” says Potts. “Throughout my whole childhood and teens, I was always subjected to a label or bullied... It got to the point where I was just being identified for what I look like. And so for me, I wanted to try and find a way to communicate that we're all just human beings, and that actually, we all share something.”
“Sweat is one of those really empowering things where I can show the purest version of a person. And that's without makeup, without fashion, without stereotypes. You can't put a filter on it, you can't edit it. I think that was one of the most beautiful things for me. It was always about trying to share who these people really are.”
In 2018, Potts unveiled 'Perspire', a collection of sports objects encrusted with crystallised sweat. From football boots to ballet shoes, the stunning sculptures displayed the amazing potential of our own bodies. The project also removed the labels of whoever's sweat it was. When speaking to DLISH over Zoom, Potts recalls the reaction from a particularly sexist individual, “I remember him coming to look at my project, and he would never normally say anything nice about a woman, but he looked at one piece and said 'Oh, this one is really beautiful.' And it was from a woman.”
Potts was first introduced to biomaterials while studying for her master's degree at The Royal College of Art in London. It was during this time she began to explore sweat, collecting it from herself after gym sessions and working with the bioengineering team at Imperial College London to turn the sweat into one-off crystals.
“Most people don't realise that actually, when we sweat and we have those white marks on our clothing, if you look really closely, they're all tiny crystals. And so, it was about taking that process and trying to develop a way to basically enlarge them,” Potts explains.
“If someone could get these tiny crystals from, for example, one hour at the gym, how could I mass produce that to get these huge crystals? I started collecting sweat for six week periods. I started off with myself because I think I was really embarrassed... I was so interested, it became an obsession.”
“I worked at Imperial College to separate all of the dirt out of the sweat and keep all of the salts and all the lactic acids and the water. Alongside that, I developed this process that allowed me to take a sweaty object of the same person and grow this purified sweat back onto the object. I remember the first crystal that I ever made was a tiny little one.”
In addition to her crystallised sweat, Potts has also collaborated with Matthew Needham to create a sculptural earring with two tiny but beautiful crystals made from tears.
“A lot of people don't realise that every time we cry, each emotion causes a different molecular structure in our tears,” Potts tells DLISH. “We did tests about emotions and when you're happy, the molecular structure is really straight, and then when you're angry, it's really jagged under a microscope. It's so beautiful to see. I've always wanted to go back into that but it's making the time to find the people who will cry.”
“We did it over six months and we had about 15 millilitres. That's why it's only a tiny little crystal, because to compress all of that into that was nearly impossible. It was really hard.”
Despite her many facets and her current role as a biomaterial designer, Potts is quick not to label herself as an artist, an innovator, or a scientist. True to the inspiration behind 'Perspire', she advocates strongly for young people not to pigeonhole themselves.
“My whole philosophy is that I'm just me. I have so many different backgrounds, I was really good at maths and I could have been a mathematician. I technically am a fashion designer but I'm also a scientist. I think I found it really hard to label myself for such a long time because it narrows your pathway as soon as you say you're something. That's why even when I do lectures now, I tell the students to just take everything in. I never encourage anyone to go into biomaterials. I think that was something that I was super interested in. But I think there is a lot of pressure for students to go down a certain pathway.”
“What I try to tell students is don't just think about what your course is but try to take in every aspect of who you are. For example, if you're extremely social, if you're antisocial, if you love sport, if you love museums, if you love nature, if you love science or maths. Try to take all those bits and design from that, instead of just trying to factor in one part of who you are.”
Click here to see more of Alice Pott’s material wonders.