Oregon sculptor turns beach trash into meaningful art

  • Pieces in Angela Haseltine Pozzi's "Washed Ashore" exhibit at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport are made up of treasures like laundry detergent bottles and flip-flops.

    Nancy Hill
  • Nancy Hill
  • Angela Haseltine Pozzi at her studio near Bandon, Oregon.

    Nancy Hill
  • Nancy Hill

South of Bandon, Ore., along Highway 101, there perches a 12-foot-tall bird with wings made of flip-flop soles and a belly of plastic lids. Its fishing-float feet are held in place by knotted plastic fishing line. The bird, which resembles the love child of an albatross, an eagle and a seagull, is just one of the huge sculptures of marine life that artist and teacher Angela Haseltine Pozzi creates and displays at Art 101, her workshop and gallery.

Born to a family of artists in Portland, Ore., Pozzi spent her childhood summers "tidepooling" at the beach. She taught art for 30 years before returning in 2007 to the coastal town of Bandon to recover from the tragic loss of her husband.   Shocked by the plastic flotsam littering the coast, the now 53-year-old Pozzi recruited community members to help clean up the beach. From their gleanings she now builds sculptures she hopes will prompt viewers to reconsider their consumption habits.

High Country News Why and when did you start using beach debris in your art?

Angela Haseltine Pozzi I first noticed plastic washing up 20 years ago. Then there was more and more. I ignored it because I didn't want to see it. When it became so much in the past two years, I realized I could no longer use thrift store finds and purchased plastic and supplies to make art like I had been doing. I needed to look at the ocean long and hard, and I needed to use only plastic from the beach. It was terrifying at first, because I changed my entire way of working.

I first used the beach trash in the "sea cave," a permanent installation at my gallery that's full of sea creatures that glow in the dark when you pull the curtain. The exhibit laid the groundwork to do more powerful social commentary about how human beings endanger the world's sea life.

HCN Why did you decide to enlist the community in your effort to clean up the beach and to make art out of it?

Pozzi I didn't want this to be about me making a product, but directing the process so that its tentacles could keep extending outward. Once people saw what I was doing, they got excited and wanted to help. Twenty people collected from scattered places between North Bend and Port Orford. We also had a beach cleanup, and we partnered with the state parks to have them bring us the garbage. Ninety-eight percent of it is plastic. We processed 4,000 pounds of plastic in eight months. There's 1,500 pounds from the past two months waiting to be processed.

HCN How do you process the plastic?

Pozzi We dump it in bins and hose it down. The big stuff we set aside to use in large pieces. We have a separate zone for the stuff that stinks. Rope is really smelly. The small stuff goes into buckets with biodegradable soap to soak for a few days. Then it gets dumped in the sieves, rinsed again. We let rain rinse it, the sun dry it in the summer. Then we sort it again, by types, sizes, shapes.

Every piece gets drilled, strung with wire, then either stitched or strung like beads. Then it gets stitched onto wire mesh, then onto chicken wire, and then onto the armatures, which are made of recycled rebar welded by local high school students.

I'm a little scared of what handling all that toxicity will do to me and my workers. It's nasty stuff, I know it's not healthy. We wear gloves and goggles. I try to protect everybody.

HCN What do you hope to offer people who see your exhibits?

Pozzi I want them to see it as a problem, that there's all this plastic washing ashore. (The art) needs to be so big that people can't ignore it. A giant fish gets attention, but it has to be really good to get people to keep looking at it, to not see it as just a pile of garbage. These are purposefully made sea creatures that say, "Look, I'm made of plastic. The fish out there? They're eating plastic. You have to stop this."

HCN What sort of responses have you gotten to your work?

Pozzi A wide range, from crying to "This changed the way I think." People are eager to tell others about it. Sorting the plastic is gut-wrenching for a lot of people: "I'll never see the beach the same again." People keep coming back to help; it gives them a sense of purpose.

Garbage is a metaphor for life. If you're able to face garbage, see it for what it is, pick it up, do something with it to help the world, that's the ultimate good thing.

Pozzi's latest show, "Washed Ashore," is on display at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport until April 13.

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