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When the Ocean Gives You Plastic, Make Animals


This article is part of our latest Museums special section, which focuses on the intersection of art and politics.

BANDON, Ore. — Angela Haseltine Pozzi stands shoulder to shoulder with Cosmo, a six-foot-tall tufted puffin, on a cliff overlooking the blustery Oregon coast. It is January and the deadly king tides have come to Coquille Point, making the shoreline look like a churning root-beer float.

Cosmo endures the weather just fine, as he is composed of plastic that has washed ashore — flip-flops, bottle caps, toy wheels, cigarette lighters — all mounted to a stainless-steel frame and bolted to concrete. The puffin is a sculpture from Ms. Haseltine Pozzi’s art and education nonprofit, Washed Ashore, whose tagline is “Art to Save the Sea.”

“We’ve cleaned up 26 tons off the beaches,” Ms. Haseltine Pozzi said, “which isn’t a dent in the actual pollution issue, but we’re doing something by raising awareness and waking people up.”

In the shelter of the nearby Washed Ashore Gallery and volunteer workshop in this city’s Old Town, Ms. Haseltine Pozzi said that the nonprofit welcomed everyone.

“We’re not here to blame anybody or to point fingers,” she said of ocean pollution. “We basically invite the Buddhists and the Baptists, and the rednecks and the hippies, and the Republicans and the Democrats, and they all sit around the table and they all work together on something, which doesn’t happen enough in our world.”

Washed Ashore has taken those 26 tons of garbage, all debris that washed up on the Oregon coast (the majority within 100 miles of Bandon), and built 70 large-scale sculptures and counting, including Octavia the Octopus, Edward the Leatherback Turtle and Daisy the Polar Bear.

The nonprofit’s plastic menagerie — all animals whose health is endangered by the trash they are made of — is in its 10th year. It has gone on display across the country, from the United Nations Plaza in New York and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington to the Tulsa Zoo. Disney and SeaWorld have also commissioned sculptures.

Currently, the “ocean ambassadors” are on view at the Oregon Zoo in Portland, the Oakland Zoo in California, and the Florida Aquarium in Tampa.

Ms. Haseltine Pozzi — who is the founder, executive director, artistic director and lead artist — also travels to train venue staff and docents in curriculum designed in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

NOAA estimates that eight million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year. Marine animals become entangled in it or ingest pieces they mistake for food, such as the whale that recently washed ashore in Scotland with 220 pounds of debris in its belly — the same weight in plastic an American throws away annually.

“She’s taken a concept that resonates with kids and adults alike to make these stunning animals, but the message is so strong, that there is plastic pollution at a scale we’ve never even dreamed of,” said Don Moore, director of the Oregon Zoo.

With growing exhibition demand, the nonprofit has outgrown its facilities, including a processing property on Highway 101, home to an old clapboard building, a tool shop, two yurts and piles of “marine debris.”

“We have more demand for our work than we can actually meet,” Ms. Haseltine Pozzi said.

In 2020, Washed Ashore will open a capital campaign to build a $3 million LEED-certified processing, training and education center where they will invite organizations from around the world to partner with, and to teach how to put the system into effect back home.

The nonprofit was partly inspired by Ms. Haseltine Pozzi’s art and nature-infused upbringing as the daughter of the artists James Haseltine and Maury Wilson Haseltine. Her husband Frank Rocco (also the Washed Ashore marketing director) points out that, as a child, she would tag along with her mother to the dump in search of treasure for found-object artworks.

The nonprofit was also the result of personal tragedy. In the 1990s, Ms. Haseltine Pozzi was living with her husband of 25 years — the photographer and educator Craig Pozzi — and their daughter in Vancouver, Wash. After years of being misdiagnosed, Mr. Pozzi died from a brain tumor in 2004. In a lawsuit related to his case, Ms. Haseltine Pozzi received $2.4 million in 2007.

“I moved to Bandon because I was a mess and I had to figure out how to heal myself,” Ms. Haseltine Pozzi said. Growing up, she would visit her grandmother’s home there. She remembers summers tide-pool hopping, searching for sea anemones.

Ms. Haseltine Pozzi again found herself walking the beaches, this time finding endless bits of plastic. The ocean had become what her friend Charles Moore — the environmentalist famed for bringing attention to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — calls “a plastic soup.”

She said she decided that she was going to save the ocean, and that it would be her late husband’s legacy.

With money from the lawsuit, she founded Washed Ashore. Ten years in, it runs on traveling-exhibition leasing fees, donations and grants; employs six people full time; and has worked with art apprentices and more than 10,000 volunteers.

To bring the marine fauna to life, Ms. Haseltine Pozzi developed a system. Staff members sort and clean marine debris (other garbage is not allowed) at the Highway 101 property, keeping anything that is not a biohazard. Outside in the rain, netted bins overflow with shoes, plastic fishing rope, toys, toothbrushes and a seemingly never-ending supply of water bottles from the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

Since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Ms. Haseltine Pozzi says larger items are common, like car bumpers and bathtubs. There are also yards and yards of plastic foam, which she uses for bleached coral reefs.

Materials are then sorted by color and brought to the workshop where “it becomes an art supply,” Ms. Haseltine Pozzi said.

On a Saturday afternoon at the workshop, under the guidance of staff members, volunteers cut, drilled and wired together black, white and orange plastic — the colors of a California condor, who will find a permanent home in April at the Oregon Zoo.

Sevren Quinn, 11, and his grandmother Karen Thomas, 79, have been volunteering for six years. “It’s a lot of plastic,” Sevren said. “I’ve done three sharks, a sea dragon and a polar bear.”

“We did a lot on the polar bear years back,” Ms. Thomas added. “And the mom and baby penguin.”

While volunteers and staff members work on the bodies, Ms. Haseltine Pozzi builds the heads.

She said the sculptures were not “thrown-together community art” but a community creating fine art together.

“It has to be powerful to do the work, and you have to use the art elements and principles to get that power across,” she said, adding, “I want to be their voice.”

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