The Washed Ashore Project: Saving the Seas with Art

Bandon-based nonprofit works to change attitudes by transforming ocean-killing garbage into sculptures

By DAVID GOLDSTEIN

Last month, as my wife and I entered Oregon on a cross-country journey, we wandered into what initially looked to be an unassuming art gallery in a little southern Oregon coast town. Huge sculptures filled the space. We looked at them closely — and suddenly realized that each was made from thousands of pieces of trash.

We had stumbled upon the Washed Ashore Project gallery in Old Town Bandon-by-the-Sea.

Flowering from the debris. Photo: The Washed Ashore Project

When Bandon artist Angela Haseltine Pozzi noticed the huge amount of plastic pollution on southern Oregon’s beaches, she wondered where all that garbage was coming from. So she did some research. Pozzi learned that plastic pollution has spread to every ocean and marine habitat in the world, and has entered every level of the ocean food chain, from whales to plankton. Turtles, fish, and other sea life ingest floating plastic bags, mistaking them for jellyfish. More than half the world’s sea turtles have eaten plastic, and partly as a result, almost all of their species are threatened or endangered. Other sea animals become ensnared in discarded fishing line, six-pack can holders, and other debris — more than 300 billion pounds of it, clogging Earth’s oceans and killing its creatures.

Big art, small art fans. Photo: The Washed Ashore Project

What could an artist do about a problem so massive? Pozzi, an artist and arts educator, decided to turn the deadly garbage into art. In 2010, she founded the Washed Ashore Project, which builds and exhibits these powerful pieces to graphically illustrate the tragedy of plastic pollution in our oceans and waterways, in the hope of sparking positive changes in consumer habits.

The organization collects trash that community volunteers remove from beaches. After they wash and sort it, a professional artist designs a sculpture and directs a group of Washed Ashore team members, volunteers, and students in building it.

The creative detail in the 66 gigantic sculptures they’ve built to date is amazing, especially when you consider that they are made entirely of found debris: bottle caps, plastic lighters, combs, shotgun shells, synthetic rope, detergent bottles, water bottles, flip-flops, aluminum cans, pop-top tabs, styrofoam blocks, and more — almost 40,000 pounds worth so far. On our visit, the docent even pointed out a plastic remote control on one of them.

The artists use no paint – if you see blue or green or silver or black or white in a sculpture, that’s the actual color of the trash used in that area.

Pozzi, a Portland native and Portland State University alumna, serves as the organization’s lead artist and executive director. She is not just an artist, but also an art educator to students from elementary to college level. In 2008, she founded another arts nonprofit, the Artula Institute for Arts and Environmental Education.

Many of these sculptures now tour the country, traveling to exhibitions at prestigious venues such as the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.; the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago; the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport; and zoos in Denver, Houston and Washington, DC. But their home base is in Bandon.

To learn more about the Washed Ashore Project, see some of their other remarkable sculptures, find out when one of their exhibitions will be coming to a location near you, host one yourself, or support their work with a charitable donation, visit their website at washedashore.org. And if you happen to be on the southern Oregon coast, don’t miss their gallery and workshop in Bandon.

 

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Doing Your Part

Even if you’re not an entrepreneurial artist like Pozzi, what you can you do to help save the seas and waterways?

Leave only footprints: the next time you travel to the beach, river, or any wilderness, leave nothing but footprints. Bring all your trash home. Plan ahead by bringing a trash bag to make all that junk easier to carry.
Leave it better than you found it: while you have that trash bag out, go ahead and pick up some of the debris left by others, like my 12-year-old nephew did (all on his own) near our campground in Half Moon Bay, California recently…I was so impressed and proud of him!
Use reusables: instead of drinking bottled water, get a reusable water bottle and fill it from the tap. Buy some reusable canvas grocery bags (or even better, bags woven from recycled soda bottles!) and use them at the grocery store.
Recycle! Most plastics–not just disposables, but even many items intended to be more durable–can be recycled. Look for a recycling symbol with a numeric code (1-7) inside it. The code indicates the type of plastic. Then find out which types your community recycles, and keep those items out of the landfill and waterways.

 

Keeping a close eye on the ocean environment. Photo: The Washed Ashore Project

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David Goldstein, a former technology entrepreneur and recovering attorney, is now a “digital nomad” who travels full-time with his wife Cheryl exploring the country in their RV. They share their experiences and discoveries on their website, Landmark Adventures (LandmarkAdventures.net).

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