and do you make anything with the plastic you find?

When I tell people I’m studying for an MA in Art and Environment, they nearly always ask, “What does that mean?” Or, “What do you actually do, then?” I explain that my work is concerned with plastic ocean pollution and I clean debris off local beaches.  The response  to this information is always, “Oh, good for you” and/or “And do you make anything with the plastic you find?”

Not really, is the short answer.  But as in so much of life, the short answer doesn’t really tell the whole story …….

I started cleaning beaches because I was swimming in the sea. One day at my favourite beach I found something I couldn’t identify. It took me a while to determine that it was man-made, probably a bit of worn and battered fishing net. The dirty white ropey stuff in the bag on the left, in fact:

Soon I realised that the beach was home to all sorts of debris. My beautiful beach was a veritable dumping ground for litter and ocean debris; some left behind by the brave souls/nutters who venture so far from the public loos and cafes found at the town beaches, but even more washed in by the sea. I couldn’t just turn a blind eye, so I picked it up.

So began my career as beach cleaner. Over the past year and a bit, this career has slowly become the focus of my MA. To begin with, I didn’t really consider the cleaning to be art: art was something you made, with stuff. This point of view, however, was a tough one to reconcile with what I was doing: for one thing, the stuff I was picking up was – and still is – pretty yucky:

…… and for another it was damn lonely cleaning those beaches on my own and then sitting in my studio on my own wondering what to make of/with it all.

I tried to focus on the bright, colourful stuff that other artists find, clean and arrange into aesthetically pleasing photos or collages. For a while I even convinced myself that it was treasure, a modern version of the ancient treasure hoards geezers with metal detectors find in fields:

But when I started to incorporate the beach debris I found into my work it turned out a bit differently. Being a knitter, the first thing I made was a knitted child’s swimsuit, from a 1930’s knitting pattern. It had shells going all around it and I added beach debris on the back:


It had a sense of nostalgia to it because of the style, and also a sadness – the rubbish represented the metaphorical weight of the 46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile of ocean on my back as I swam in the sea, not to mention the stuff I actually pick up.

My next piece was a sun dress:

This stayed hidden away until December when I included it in a group show. It is an uncomfortable dress; it would hurt to wear. When I made it I was thinking of all the plastic that stays hidden from view but is still in the ocean even if we can’t see it. It is, as someone pointed out to me, my hair shirt.

These two pieces are a pretty good representation of my state of mind as I cleaned beaches on my own. They say a lot about how hopeless, and angry, and lonely I felt. Then in June last year I started collaborating with other artists. I’ve written in past posts about the beach cleans we’ve done and the rubbish kebabs we’ve made and, most recently, using quadrats to examine the beach more closely. These all represent a different way of looking at art. A way of seeing art as doing, not just making. Art as an act, or a performance. Changing my way of looking at art has changed how I think about what I do. I’ll write about that in my next post.






6 thoughts on “and do you make anything with the plastic you find?

  1. Interesting concept of picking up litter and debris as performance art. I too pick up litter (and make art from it) but had never thought of beach cleanups as art. Thanks for helping me see that differently. I clean Lauderdale by the Sea beach in South Florida. What beach do you clean? Sharon

    • Hi Sharon, I clean mostly at a small beach about 30 mins walk from where I live (Falmouth, Cornwall,) informally known as Arthur’s Beach, as well as various beaches closer or further from Falmouth depending on my mood, or wether I’m with anyone else. Keep up the god work on your side of the pond!

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