Among the detritus left behind from beach trips — beer cans, sunscreen containers, sand shovels and water bottles — a pink polka-dot flip-flop could easily be overlooked.
But when such an object washed up on the shore of a sleepy Oregon beach town several years ago, artist Angela Haseltine Pozzi took notice.
“It took me seven years to figure out what to do with it,” Pozzi says now, pointing to the shoe in its current home.
Faded from extended exposure to the surf and sun, the flip-flop now forms the roof of the mouth of Flash the Marlin, a larger-than-life sculpture greeting guests in the lobby of the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans.
The lid of a Japanese mayonnaise jar and a toy truck tire make up Flash's eyes, and hundreds of plastic water bottles form the bubbles beneath the massive game fish, part of the new "Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea" exhibit.
The traveling exhibition, designed to educate a global audience about the threat of plastic pollution of the world’s oceans and waterways, opened Friday and features six sculptures at the riverfront Aquarium and one at the Audubon Zoo.
Pozzi is the lead artist and artistic director for Washed Ashore, a nonprofit organization that creates large sculptures of marine creatures affected by pollution by using plastics salvaged along Pacific Coast beaches.
Ten employees and a steady stream of volunteers collect, clean and assemble the materials to create the works of art. To avoid contributing any more waste, no additional plastic is used in the assembly of the artworks, many of which are painstakingly stitched together with metal wire.
There are the usual beach leftovers one might expect to find: beer cans, fishing lure, beach balls and water bottles. But there are also toilet seats, chunks of PVC pipe, construction hard hats, plastic crates and lawn chairs.
Some of the items are a powerful reminder of the seemingly never-ending lifespan materials like plastic can have. After entire villages were wiped away during the 2011 tsunami in Japan, debris including housing insulation washed ashore years later along the Oregon and Washington coastlines. Pozzi’s team once came across a water bottle from the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
“It had been 10 years — and it still looked brand new,” Pozzi said.
A nationwide effort to ban harmful plastics has gained momentum, in particular a campaign to end the use of plastic straws, most of which end up in the oceans, polluting the waters and harming marine life.
Researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimate that approximately 80 percent of marine debris comes from land-based sources, including streets and streams that lead to other waterways and eventually end up in the ocean.
Research shows the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans has reached catastrophic proportions, with 13 million tons entering the oceans each year. By 2050, some scientists believe, there will be more plastic by weight than fish in the seas.
Last year, the Audubon Nature Institute joined the effort to promote education on the topic and committed to reducing single-use plastics by phasing out the plastic straws offered at the zoo's and aquarium's concession stands and the plastic bags from its gift shops.
The new art exhibit tries to draw patrons as close as possible with interactive features, said Brenda Walkenhorst, the director of education projects for Audubon.
The dangling tentacles of a hanging sea jelly are made up of nylon rope, water bottles and buoys, and a green “musical seaweed” tree is constructed of tennis balls, conduit pipe and plastic crates.
“The most important part is, we’re trying to teach conservation, but conservation can be a very dry subject,” Walkenhorst said. “So incorporating it with art and with fun makes it much easier for us to get the message out.”
For Pozzi, an artist who taught school for 30 years, the idea for the project was born of a personal tragedy. When her husband of 25 years suddenly collapsed with a brain tumor and died, Pozzi moved to the small coastal town of Bandon, Oregon, to heal.
“I was devastated,” she recalled. “And I had to figure out what to do to make my life worth living. So I was just walking the beaches every day with my dog, trying to figure out what to do with my life.”
Walking the Oregon beaches, however, Pozzi kept stepping on things — discarded beach toys, chair parts, beer cans and plastic lighters.
“I realized that the ocean need to be healed … not me,” she said.
In 2010 Pozzi formed Washed Ashore, which has since grown to include multiple traveling exhibitions, with a total of more than 70 sculptures. Each piece takes about six months to construct, and Pozzi said they add around five new pieces a year.
The exhibit now at the aquarium features six sculptures: Flash, the marlin; Greta, a great white shark; two sea jellies; a “musical” seaweed; and a set of whale bones. Sebastian, a tufted puffin, is on exhibit at the Audubon Zoo, and in October, nine more sculptures will be added.
Since first launching the project, Pozzi has welcomed roughly 10,000 volunteers.
“It gives them a sense of purpose and makes them feel like they’re making a difference — which they are,” she said. “Everybody can make a difference.”