Oregon Coast in Pelagic Polymers

16"x24" Found objects on cardstock

16″x24″ Found objects on cardstock

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I have made regular excursions to the Oregon Coast since moving to Oregon in 1988 and my family has been taking yearly trips to the coast that always involve several beach walks. Never can I (nor anyone in my family) recall seeing so much trash on the beach as we did in this year’s trip, most notably the thousands upon thousands of small plastic bits. They lay in wavy rows up and down the sand, left by the lines of the high tide.

This is surely due to some recent change in this trash’s ability to make its way from somewhere in the ocean to our beaches, not an increase in dumping or littering. Winds or currents or both (or…?) have caused this flotsam to now gather on our coast. Whether it hails from the Pacific trash vortex (the ever-increasing garbage accumulation in the North Pacific gyre) or is at least partly Japanese tsunami debris I cannot know, but its presence is startling and unsettling. Almost none of it appears to be trash you would expect on the beach, like objects from boats, fishing paraphernalia, or other beach-town industry waste.

These particular bits (plastics of different varieties) are small – most smaller than my thumb and many of them smaller than my finger nail. Clean-up crews like Solv and beach-combers come by at irregular intervals to collect large pieces of trash and debris but I was most struck that likely what I was seeing will never be picked up. Due to its size, it would be extremely labor-intensive to collect and separate from the sand and natural beach accumulation around it.

However, for a small time, I did just that: With the help of several family members, over a couple hours on a stretch of beach in North Lincoln City, we collected over three pounds of these small plastic pieces. I added to the collection by a half-pound a couple weeks later on a trip with friends to Pacific City, 20 miles north, where I saw the same issue. A drop in the bucket, sure, but seeing the bits gave me an idea. I was intrigued by the variety of colors, mostly shades of white, clear and blue (but also every hue you can imagine plastic coming in), most of it textured and color-gradated from long exposure to sun and splashing salt water.

If plastic is turning up on our beaches in greater numbers, what would a beach scene look like that is made completely of that plastic?

I know there are artists who create sculpture from large beach trash but I wanted to create something on a smaller scale, working more intricately (a lot of tweezer work) with the smaller pieces I believe don’t have much hope of ever being removed from these natural spaces.

I decided to create this work as a response to what I was seeing (for my own edification) and with a vague hope that some awareness of the magnitude of the problem at the Oregon coast could come from it. While creating it I found myself going back and forth between trying to make the scene realistic-looking and trying to make it look more like it’s made of trash. I got excited at arranging pieces that truly looked like rocks or beach sand and alternately worked to add pieces that are recognizable as a broken piece of something else but still fit in the scheme of the image. I hope, in the end, it looks like trash from up close and evokes an Oregon beach postcard scene from farther away. Realistically trashy or trashily realistic?

The first, most obvious dichotomy of this piece is the creation of a scene from nature using strictly objects of man-made refuse. On another level, the fact that these items of refuse came from the environment they now represent is the more powerful idea. Through accident and circumstance these man-made pieces lay across our landscape and now through man-made effort they intentionally become that landscape. Order to disorder and back again. And not only is beauty formed where it did not exist before, the act of removing what was once litter, in turn, restores beauty in a place where it had previously existed.

This also then becomes a commentary on the current state of our beaches, our oceans and the whole environment. Many would agree that our efforts so far to address these issues have not been sufficient, and from the look of things, it could get much more dire in a hurry.

Of course, it would take a lot for our currently beautiful coast line to turn into a place so dense with trash it resembles my picture, but maybe the thought of just such a thing could spark some change.

Check out these links for more information on these issues:

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/09/07/as-japan-s-tsunami-debris-arrives-can-u-s-west-coast-handle-it.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Pacific_Garbage_Patch

http://www.solv.org/what-we-do/solve-spring-oregon-beach-cleanup

I hope you enjoy it.

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