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13 Artists Who Turned Ocean Trash Into Amazing Art

7 minute read

Today is World Oceans Day, “a global day of ocean celebration and collaboration for a better future.” This year’s focus is the prevention of plastic ocean pollution and events are taking place worldwide in order to learn about the challenges facing our oceans, clean up local beaches, and get involved in marine conservation efforts.

Studies on the issue of marine debris have reached some dire conclusions. Last year, the journal Science reported 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in oceans each year, while PNAS found that 90% of seabirds have ingested the substance. In January, the World Economic Forum predicted that the world’s oceans will be filled with more plastic mass than fish mass by 2050.

Marine plastic is a special threat because it does not fully degrade, instead breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics. Ocean dwellers, such as sea turtles and fish, can mistake the debris for food, leading to digestive issues and starvation.

Artists and activists have taken notice, using marine plastic as a medium, like paint or clay, to create artwork. Although often aesthetically beautiful, the works point to the concerning profusion of these plastics in our environment.

Alejandro Durán—Brotes (Shoots), 2014
Alejandro Durán—Brotes (Shoots), 2014

In recognition of World Oceans Day, we present 13 artists, from sculptors to photographers, to filmmakers, who use marine plastic in their work.

Alejandro Durán: Washed Up

Alejandro Duran—Derrame (Spill), 2010
Alejandro Durán—Derrame (Spill), 2010

Alejandro Durán is a multimedia artist from Mexico City, now based in Brooklyn. The meticulously arranged photographs in his Washed Up series aim to “reveal the pervasive impact of consumer culture on the natural world” and “the fraught intersections of man and nature.” On his website, he encourages fans of his work to keep informed on the issue of plastic pollution and to make changes in their lives to reduce their impact on the environment.

Mandy Barker: Hong Kong Soup 1826

Hong Kong Soup - Lighter
Mandy Barker—Hong Kong Soup, Lighter, 2014

Mandy Barker is a photographer who creates visually stunning works on the impact of oceanic waste. Hong Kong Soup:1826 depicts plastics gathered from over 30 different beaches in Hong Kong, where over 1,826 tons of plastic waste are added to landfills every day. The panda on the lighter in the foreground of this image, she writes, “represents endangered species and faces away from the group, symbolizing mother nature turning its back on man’s inability to take ownership of its waste.”

Max Liboion: Sea Globes

Max Liboion—Large Sea Globe, 2013-2014.
Max Liboion—Large Sea Globe, 2013-2014.

Max Liboion is a scholar, activist, and artist based in Newfoundland. In this work, created for an exhibition at the Anchorage Museum entitled Gyre: The Plastic Ocean, she connects kitsch with a harsh reality. The “souvenir” globes are filled with plastics collected from the Hudson River and the rocks are made of bituminous coal from a closed landfill in Deadhorse Bay, both in in south Brooklyn.

Judith and Richard Lang: Cavallo Point

Judith and Richard Lang—Steampunk II
Judith and Richard Lang—Steampunk II, 20" x 16", 2008

Judith Selby Lang and Richard Lang collected all the plastic they use for their assemblages from 1000 yards of Kehoe Beach in California. Their goal with their artwork is to use beauty as a call to action. They write, “Each little piece of trash has a story to tell in its connection to human life. One can tell the story of a culture obsessed by convenience. Another, the hand from a Barbie doll, opens to tell us about our fetish for a certain body type. Bottles, lost toys, small objects of every description are presented as objects of desire.”

John Dahlsen: Environmental Wallworks

John Dahlsen—Blue Rope
John Dahlsen—Blue Rope, 165 x 44 cm

John Dahlsen is a prolific Australian artist who treats the beach litter he collects as a painters palette. He writes, “it literally amazes me to think how many times I have bent over to pick up the many thousands of pieces of plastic debris that made up that aspect of my art, each piece jostled around for who knows how long by sand, sun and ocean, their form faded and rounded by the elements.”

Tuula Närhinen: Baltic Sea Plastique

Tuula Närhinen—Baltic Sea Plastique
Tuula Närhinen—Baltic Sea Plastique, 2013

Tuula Närhinen is a visual artist based in Helsinki, Finland. For Baltic Sea Plastique she created nine sculptures made of materials washed up by the sea on Harakka Island. She then filmed the “creatures” she created in the water surrounding the island and built an exhibition presenting these creatures as if they were scientific specimens. The project, she writes, “presents a plastic world of sensations in which synthetic and organic forms coexist, interact, and create puzzling natural artifacts.”

Steve McPherson: Marine Plastic

Steve McPherson—Correlation
Steve McPherson—Correlation, 100cm x 100cm, 2012

Steve McPherson has been collecting plastic debris from the North Kent Coast of the UK for 15 years. In Correlation, he uses the journey of Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days as the framework to arrange the piece. The colors, here, correspond to the mean average yearly low and high temperatures of each city he visits on his journey. Like Phileas, these plastic pieces have also embarked on “an unknown, or unknowable adventure, whose chance happenings and incidents are left as scars on the object as a reminder of the journey past.”

Angela Haseltine Pozzi—Washed Ashore

Angela Haseltine Pozzi, Washed Ashore—Octopus
Angela Haseltine Pozzi, Washed Ashore—Octopus, 9" x 12", 2014

Angela Haseltine Pozzi is the artistic and executive director behind Washed Ashore, “a non-profit, community-based organization with a mission of educating and creating awareness about marine debris and plastic pollution through art.” Angela was inspired by the marine debris she saw accumulating on the beaches of her native Oregon. Through Washed Ashore, she organizes volunteers to clean up beaches and use the debris to construct larger-than-life sculptures of the animals most affected plastic pollution. “Until we run out of plastic on the beach,” she says, “we will keep doing our work.”

Gilles Cenazandotti: Plastic Beach

Gilles Cenazandotti—Plastic Beach, Orso, 53 x 80 cm., 2012
Gilles Cenazandotti—Plastic Beach, Orso, 53 x 80 cm., 2012

Gilles Cenazandotti is a French sculptor who uses marine plastic to create life size animals sculptures, including crocodiles, polar bears, wolves, and other endangered animals. His work imagines a dystopian future where animals have evolved and mutated to become one with their trash-strewn environment.

Evelyn Rydz: Floating Artifacts

Evelyn Rydz—Floating Artifacts
Evelyn Rydz—Floating Artifacts, #5(L) and #8(R), Pigmented Ink Prints, 36" x 48", 2014

Evelyn Rydz is a Boston-based artist who takes photographs and creates illustrations of man-made objects that have washed ashore, presenting these artifacts like an archeologist of contemporary history. Through her photos, we can see how the journey through the ocean has changed these objects.

Pam Longobardi: Drifters

Pam Longobardi—Bounty, Pilfered
Pam Longobardi—Bounty, Pilfered, 136" x 84" x 54", 2014

Pam Longobardi is a conceptual artist interested in the collision between nature and global consumer culture. She started the Drifters Project in 2006, after discovering the mountains of plastic debris that was being washed up on the shores on Hawaii. Bounty, Pilfered is made of over 1000 pieces of ocean plastic removed from beaches of Alaska, Greece, Hawaii, Costa Rica and the Gulf of Mexico.

Tess Felix: Ocean Eco Heroes

Tess Felix—Beth Terry
Tess Felix—Beth Terry, 36" x 36" x 2", 2013

Tess Felix uses plastic debris to create classical portraits of the activists and leaders who are working to clean up the world’s oceans. She writes, “The contrast between the humanity of the figures and the plastic materials they are made of suggests that we are part of and responsible for the problem we have created.” This portrait depicts Bethe Terry, author of the book My Plastic Free Life.

Nick Pumphrey: Oceanic

Nick Pumphrey—Nusa Lembongan, 2014.

Nick Pumphrey is a fashion and lifestyle photographer who is also an ambassador for Take 3, and Australian non-profit that deals with ocean trash. On a dive off the coast of Nusa Lembongan, near Bali, he captured images of manta rays swimming through a sea of trash that had been washed out to sea by recent rains.

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