Angela Pozzi grew up learning the arts like a second language. In her mother’s studio, she discovered a passion for reinventing would-be discarded items like toilet paper rolls or bottle caps as creative materials, which would later come in handy during her 30 years as an underfunded public art teacher.
When her mother passed away, Pozzi decided to become a professional artist, as her mother had always encouraged her to. But after her husband passed, Pozzi moved to her family’s cabin on the southern Oregon coast, lost and depressed, to try and connect with the ocean and to find her life’s trajectory. But something was wrong.
“I kept coming across plastic on this beach that I felt was a sacred place,” she explains. “I’d always believed that the ocean would never change, that it’s one constant in our lives, but I realized we were starting to destroy it … I thought, if I can save the ocean, that’s a good reason to live, so let’s do that.”
In 2010, Pozzi founded the 501c3 nonprofit Washed Ashore, rallying local community members who had previously just been getting angry about the problem to collaborate on a solution: recycling beach plastics into art that would “let people see what’s going on in a way they want to see it.” With the help of more than 14,000 volunteers, the organization has processed over 20 tons of reclaimed plastics into more than 75 giant sculptures, or four traveling exhibits, of animal species like sea lions, jellyfish and puffins threatened by human pollution. Their four traveling exhibits are displayed in galleries, museums and aquariums alike, where viewers can make out thousands of recognizable components, from toothbrushes to flip-flops, many with visible bite marks in them.
As public awareness of our overwhelming plastic waste has grown, so too have plastic-derived creative projects like Washed Ashore, which aim to engage and motivate communities on a subject that often causes feelings of consternation and defeat. Though used in a wide variety of “disposable” products, plastics take centuries to decompose completely and have started piling up to a weight of more than 315 billion pounds in the world’s oceans. With an additional eight million metric tons added each year, the World Economic Forum predicts that by 2050, oceans will contain more plastic than fish mass.
Since we’re going to be living with the remnants of our plastic waste for centuries, it’s in the Earth and humanity’s best interest to find some positive use that can keep them out of our natural ecosystems and food chains. Circulated by ocean gyres, the world’s trash has become international artists’ creative treasure, a cheap, ubiquitous and versatile new medium with an inherent connection to people’s everyday lives and some unique aesthetic qualities.
“Plastic is either clear or colored all the way through,” explains Richard Lang. “When [it] starts to get weathered by the sun and abrasion, there’s a really interesting patina that happens pretty universally with plastic on the beach. [I]t’s like putting a photoshop filter on a bright color.”
Since 1999, Lang and his wife Judith Selby Lang have collaborated on the project One Beach Plastic, making minimalist still life prints with plastic pieces they collect and curate from one 1,000-meter stretch of coastline in Northern California’s Point Reyes National Seashore. Both had been independently collecting plastic to make their art for three years before sharing their first date at this same beach. When she knelt to pick up a colorful piece in the sand, he asked, “Are you gonna keep that?”
“By focusing on just that tiny dimension of the vast coastline,” Judith says, “it shows what’s happening on beaches around the planet. Because the problem is so vast, the main point of our work is ‘two people, one beach’—a graspable metric for the human mind.”
Despite the singular focus, their art has been exhibited internationally “from Tokyo to Tbilisi,” in over 100 venues and counting. Like Pozzi, the Langs relish the challenge of creating something new and beautiful from what others discard, arranging different shades of plastic like “brushstrokes on a canvas” and selling photographic prints to avoid the environmental nightmare of re-shipping plastics around the world. As well as promoting consumer mindfulness and simple fixes like bringing reusable bags to the grocery store, their work invites viewers to reconsider familiar objects disregarded by our throwaway culture, like drink lids or cigarillo tips (a mainstay on many beaches), in a new, often beautiful light.
“[W]e want people to pay attention to their everyday actions, and don’t feel terrible about their actions, just change them,” says Richard. “What we’re interested in more than anything is inspiring creativity, because out of creativity comes solutions. Feeling terrible doesn’t do it.”
These projects are a reminder that environmentalist art can do more than point fingers or make us feel bad, an approach that quickly leads to despair, alienation and division on what should be a universal issue.
To make their message accessible to as many as possible, including international audiences unable to decipher the educational signage, Washed Ashore offers many different ways to learn about the nature and scope of our plastic crisis. Pozzi drew from her teaching background to build out resources like a sub-exhibit called Buoy, Beat ‘n’ Bop appealing to musical learners, and a free online “marine debris” curriculum to help anyone launch a beach pollution art practice.
“The arts have a purpose just in their aesthetic qualities, but they’re also a powerful language that can reach into the heart and into the mind, and stay there and not be fleeting,” says Pozzi. “The art itself has to educate without any words, so even just having a recognizable item in your face when you’re looking at a fish and realizing, ‘Is that a lighter?’”
When a Washed Ashore volunteer feels empowered for bending old clothes hangers on a penguin’s six-by-six wing panel, or a viewer of the exhibit starts crying because they’d never thought of it like this before, it shows that art still has a powerful role to play in helping us overcome insurmountable-seeming issues of environmental destruction, in much the same way it’s helped us overcome other issues – by inspiring action and changing minds.
Since founding Washed Ashore, Pozzi has witnessed this influence firsthand. She’s now looking to move onto something new within her umbrella nonprofit the Artula Institute. While it’s been a continual challenge to hand over creative control without letting ego get in the way, it’s also been “extremely rewarding and fulfilling,” and goes to the heart of the collective impact she hoped to make with Washed Ashore’s art.
“I think the whole paradigm shift should be ‘I’m part of something bigger and we’re all doing this together.’ It’s what we need more of in this world,” Pozzi says. “Every little step adds up, and when people see a visual, that’s real, that gives us hope because we very seldom get a tangible example of how our actions count.”