Earlier this spring, the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., showcased Turtle Ocean, a vivid 3D re-creation of a marine ecosystem. Inside the plexiglass case, a female hawksbill sea turtle with a brightly patterned carapace glides over a coral reef in a sea brimming with color. Nearby, an orange jellyfish floats in the current while beautiful anemones in shades of purple and blue sway on the seafloor.
But in taking a closer look, you’ll see objects that don’t belong in this tropical habitat, or anywhere else in the ocean. The turtle’s head is a toy boat wired together with a hairbrush handle and black plastic sandals. An old Frisbee forms the body of the jellyfish and its tentacles are frayed hunks of polypropylene rope. Every organism in the display is crafted from trash collected from the sea.
“You think you’re looking at this beautiful artistic installation and then you realize that every single thing in it has washed up on the beach,” says Jill Johnson, a Smithsonian Institution exhibit developer who brought Turtle Ocean to the museum to help educate visitors about ocean pollution. “It gets you thinking.”
That’s exactly what Turtle Ocean and dozens of other nature sculptures created by Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea are meant to do. Launched in 2010 by artist and environmentalist Angela Haseltine Pozzi, the arts and education foundation, based in Bandon, Oregon, turns trash found by volunteers on Pacific Coast beaches into monumental works of art that call attention to an ecological disaster that’s growing larger in the world’s oceans every day.
Stella the Seahorse, Sebastian James the Puffin, Flash the Marlin, and some 80 other fancifully named marine animals bear witness to a deadly scourge. Every year, up to 28,000 pounds of plastic end up in the sea, endangering species that ingest the nondigestible material or become lethally ensnared in bags, packaging materials, and abandoned fishing nets. By using those same materials to build their large-scale sculptures, Pozzi and a team of up to a dozen artists let their works of wildlife do the talking. The pieces have traveled to 30 zoos, science museums, botanical gardens, parks, and nature centers in the United States and Canada.
“Sometimes science and ecology speak a language that the general public doesn’t understand,” says Pozzi, 63, who became a professional artist after 30 years of teaching in public schools and universities. “By creating giant sculptures in the forms of the animals that are being threatened, we can get people to see the garbage, get them to take their picture next to it, and get them to talk about it. We want people to take ownership of the issue.”
Like Turtle Ocean, all of the Washed Ashore sculptures incorporate hundreds of consumer products that are placed “where people can’t ignore them,” says Pozzi. At a child’s eye level, for instance, Greta the Great White Shark, one of 18 sculptures that are part of a traveling exhibition now at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, has sand shovels and toys that are popular with kids.
The idea is to engage visitors—“like a scavenger hunt,” says Andrew Wood, the aquarium’s chief operating officer—and to get them thinking about the consumer habits and personal behaviors that contribute to the problem. Accompanying the menagerie are educational exhibits that reinforce this message and encourage the use of products such as reusable straws, water bottles, and storage containers that are less destructive to the environment.
Pozzi says she literally stumbled on the idea for Washed Ashore during walks on the windswept beaches of Bandon, where she moved to in 2010, several years after the death of her husband. “I went there to heal,” she says. But the pristine sand she remembered from childhood summers at the Pacific shore was now littered with plastic waste carried in on every high tide. “I kept stepping over garbage and not wanting to see it. I saw people in the distance picking up shells and agates and I thought, They're not seeing this either.”
Today, community members are the foot soldiers of Washed Ashore. They collect garbage from a roughly 100-mile stretch of the southern Oregon coast. The group’s debris processing facility then sorts the refuse by shape and color and soaks it in vinegar and biodegradable soap. Members of the public of all ages and abilities can participate in assembling small panels of plastic pieces with wires and screws. Staff members attach these to the welded-steel frames of the sculptures, and Pozzi and other lead artists complete the designs.
About 95 percent of the plastic items deposited in the group’s recycling bins makes it into a sculpture, says Pozzi. At this point, she is no longer surprised by the infinite variety of plastic objects carried in by the tides—toothbrushes, medical devices, Barbie dolls, and on and on. But the one thing that still shocks her are plastics bearing bite marks caused by fish trying to eat them. “It’s horrifying,” she says. So she uses them to show people one of the many ways our trash impacts wildlife.
As an artist, Pozzi is aware of the strong appeal of plastic in our lives and leisure time. It’s striking how pretty something that we take for granted can be. “We have demanded that plastic be made into anything we've ever wanted, in every size and every color and every shape. That’s why we have so much of it and why it persists in the environment. If we could just get people to fall in love with earth tones!” she says with a laugh. In the meantime, she’s fighting garbage with beautifully sculpted garbage.
Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea is at the Florida Aquarium through the end of August 2020. Exhibitions at the Oregon Zoo in Portland, the Oakland Zoo in Oakland, California, and the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., are subject to temporary closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
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