Some folks stroll along shorelines ignoring wayward flip-flops, scattered bits of frayed rope, abandoned beach toys and thoughtlessly discarded six-pack rings. Others quietly scoop them up and toss them in the trash.
Washed Ashore, a nonprofit organization in Oregon, veers in an entirely different direction. The staff and volunteers transform tons of debris from waterways in the Pacific Northwest into bold, vibrant sculptures designed to focus public attention directly on the wildly diverse assortment of objects that are polluting oceans and endangering wildlife.
Dozens of striking and sometimes whimsical pieces built by Washed Ashore include a toothy 12-foot shark, a 9-foot penguin and an 8-foot octopus. Also part of the aquatic theme are a river otter, a tufted puffin, a seahorse and a polar bear sitting on an iceberg.
As spectators study a piece, either in person or in a photo, the perspective shifts. The eyes begin to pick out recognizable objects — like toothbrushes, netting and toy truck wheels — artfully integrated into the shapes and textures.
“It’s breathtaking to see,” says Andrea Rodgers, spokeswoman for Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, which is one of the locations in the United States showcasing a traveling exhibit from Washed Ashore, which features the tagline “Art to Save the Sea.”
Other than stainless steel frames, the sculptures are fully built and embellished with marine debris, according to the organization’s marketing director. Sunglasses and a toilet seat are among the diverse assortment of objects pulled from piles of pollution picked up by volunteers.
Some of the selected discards are sliced up and formed into different shapes. But many items are purposely left in their original form to emphasize the variety of objects that wind up in the water, according to Washed Ashore founder and lead artist Angela Haseltine Pozzi.
Pozzi launched the organization in 2010, eager to use the power of the arts as an educational tool focusing on the impact of plastic pollution. Such discards as shopping bags, nets, fishing line and six-pack rings unnecessarily endanger wildlife. Some animals mistake plastic discards as food, and others become ensnared in it.
Washed Ashore sends its sculptures out and about, with travelling exhibits at zoos, aquariums and botanical gardens. A piece depicting an ocean scene is on display at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. During an ocean conference, a few other pieces stood at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.
The traveling exhibit at Shedd Aquarium launched in September with 10 pieces. Nine other sculptures are being added, Rodgers said. The exhibit runs until next September.
Not in Chicago? Here are other locations you can catch the artwork:
- Mounts Botanical Garden in West Palm Beach, Florida, Dec. 2, 2017 to June 3, 2018
- Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium in Sarasota, Florida, Dec. 9, 2017 to June 15, 2018
- Harbortown Events Center in Bandon, Oregon, an ongoing exhibit in the organization’s hometown
- Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans, in 2018 and 2019
- Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2019
- Naples Zoo in Naples, Florida, in 2019 and 2020
At Shedd Aquarium, the Washed Ashore sculptures are drawing enthusiastic attention, with spectators studying the intricate features and snapping lots of photos, Rodgers says.
Along with the sculptures, promotional information offers suggestions for those inspired to prevent plastic pollution.
“You know how to reduce, reuse and recycle. But the best way to keep single-use plastic out of our rivers, lakes and oceans is to embrace alternatives,” the aquarium’s information states. “Take a reusable shopping bag to the store, carry a refillable water bottle and use a metal or heavy-duty glass straw.”
Still not convinced changes are needed? Some scientists predict that if we don’t take action, the amount of plastics in our oceans will exceed the amount of fish, pound for pound, by 2050, according to information from the Shedd Aquarium.