Since 1999, we have collected over two tons of plastic trash and have used it make prints, installations, and sculptures, finding this plastic pollution to be a compelling and abundant art material. When given the opportunity to exhibit our work in the SFMOMA Artist Windows, a 24/7 street side venue, we knew that we had to create something that would be enticingly beautiful and would effectively communicate the message about what is happening on beaches and in the oceans.
In 2005, the United Nations Environmental Programme reported that there are 46,000 pieces of visible plastic floating in every square mile of the ocean. It is almost impossible to visualize that amount. This fact seemed like a good starting point. We decided to count 4,600 pieces, the amount estimated to be in ten square city blocks, and hang them on wires in a way that would simulate the movement of the colorful bits of plastic in the ocean.
Realizing it was going to be daunting task to string that many pieces of plastic, we joined forces with Intersection for the Arts who coordinated workshops with Larkin Street Youth Services, a program for homeless and at-risk youth in San Francisco. It was exciting to see how seriously, and with great attention to detail, each person fashioned their strand. Color, kind, spacing - all became considered elements in the compositions. Even the rote task of stringing plastic was transformed by their individual creative approaches. During our hand-on sessions, we engaged in thoughtful conversations about the plastic we all use and discard every day. The question always comes round to Where did this plastic come from? How did it get to the beach?
The display was installed in the Natoma Street windows in November 2010. Soon thereafter, a group of the youth met at the windows to view the installation and to celebrate what they had accomplished.
We wanted the Larkin Youth to go to the beach, to the source, to discover where the plastic used in the SFMOMA Block Party came from. In March 2011, thanks to help from Intersection for the Arts and the caring and committed staff at Larkin Street Youth Services, a group of 19 of us made the trek to Kehoe Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore. We were blessed with a stunningly beautiful day- no wind and warm. Yes, everyone did find plastic. In fact, we collected many bags full.
Several of the youth had never been to such a “wild” place. On the drive to the beach that took us through the rolling dairy land of West Marin, one youth exclaimed that he had never been so close to a cow before!
Back at Larkin Street, the youth transformed the plastic collected on our field trip into sculptures and jewelry and powerful statements about plastic pollution. To document street plastic, one of the sources of beach plastic, we went just outside LSYS to the neighborhood of Ellis, Van Ness and Polk Streets. With point-and-shoot cameras, the youth photographed plastic on the street and in the gutters; on its way to the coast.
From the compositional stance to the reverie of form, the photographs taken by the youth captured the haunting beauty of trash. The images were evidence of keen artistic eyes at work. The street plastic photographs were collaged with words/phrases from magazines with pieces of beach plastic added to complete the assemblages. In May 2011, the artwork was hung in LSYS office windows on Sutter Street where it will be on display until late summer.
As "compulsive gleaners," we look at street debris in a similar way as we do the beach plastic debris. From the snarled knot of a plastic bag to the tire treads on a flattened water bottle, there is beauty to be found. Each item has an intriguing story to tell about its use and discard. Who did it once belong to? How did it arrive in the street/gutter?
It was a grand adventure to take the Larkin Street youth on a beach and street plastic journey from Natoma Street (SFMOMA Artist windows) to Mission Street (Intersection 5M) to Lark Inn (workshop location) to Sutter Street (display windows). What a trip! We are grateful for the opportunity to be the guide for this educational and artistic experience. Although we always had in mind the destination (our finale installation in the Sutter Street windows) - the creativity and the enthusiasm of the participants made for a better than imagined getting there.
This workshop strengthened our commitment to realizing community based art projects. Art can empower youth- from the building of skills to the validation of seeing their efforts displayed in a public venue.
Art can help us to communicate across seemingly vast differences in life circumstances. In this workshop it was plastic that brought us together- as a common denominator in all of our lives. In this workshop it was art that allowed us to express our thoughts and feelings about the local and global impact of trash.
We are grateful to SFMOMA Artist Gallery for the wonderful opportunity to display our work in such a high traffic, maximum impact venue. We are grateful for the long run of the show knowing that many many people passed by our windows, were intrigued about our display and were impacted by our message.
We happy about the ways our project engaged the community. Thanks to Intersection for the Arts we partnered with youth from Larkin Street Youth Services to help with the daunting task of making the hanging strands of plastic for Block Party in the Natoma Street windows.
In To Feel Connected, Peter Carpou from LSYS talks about the adventure of art and the positive influence it has on homeless teens. Photographs in the video show the teens at work on Block Party, with the proud youth standing in front of the window when the installation was complete.
In Intersection is, intern Ryan Biega talks about the meaningful experience of working with the LSYS project and the empowerment of the youth participants who could come to the window, any time 24/7, point to it and affirm, “I made that!”
For Earth Day 2011, Erica Hintergardt from KTVU in Local Teens Learn, Create Art with Beach Plastic shows the LSYS teens transforming beach plastic into art…then taking to the streets of San Francisco to document street plastic on its way down the gutters and out to the sea. The youth thoughtfully present their creative responses to the problem of plastic pollution expressing the importance of awareness and the need to take action.
Larkin Street Youth Services
Intersection for the Arts
One Plastic Beach