Words by Gary Parker
Photographs supplied by Washed Ashore
Illustration by Helene Barbe

Oceans make up around 72% of our planet. Protecting them should be a priority, as the vital connection between the health of our global ocean, the health of our planet and our own health is all intertwined. Over 300 million tons of plastic are produced annually, with the majority of it being for one-time use and less than 5% being recycled. The fact is that our world today is built from plastic. From the clothes we wear, the shoes on our feet, the cars we drive, our credit cards, light switches, TVs, mobile phones, computers, the list could go on and on. Plastic is in everything, mostly because it’s incredibly versatile as well as inexpensive to manufacture. National Geographic estimates that over 85 million plastic bottles are used every three minutes. A scary notion as in many cases, plastic waste that is not incinerated or landfilled makes its way to the oceans. And yet each year we use and consume more. In fact, we have produced as much plastic in the past decade as we did in the entire twentieth century. We cannot possibly stay on our plastic-paved path for any longer—our oceans are now choking on what was once thought to be ‘magic’ material. We need solutions to these problems, which for the most part, people are unaware of all together. The Washed Ashore Project is a non-profit, community-based organisation with a mission of educating and creating awareness about marine debris and plastic pollution through their art and education programs.   

As I sip my morning coffee waiting to chat with Angela Haseltine Pozzi, the founder of the Washed Ashore Project, I begin to think about how consumed we really are by plastic in our daily lives. From the moment I awake to the sound of the buzzing alarm clock, pulling open the blinds, throwing back the sheets and shuffling along the linoleum floor into the bathroom, brushing my teeth and going to the toilet, pulling across the shower curtain then into the kitchen, plug in the kettle, throw some bread in the toaster, cut some fruit on the chopping board. In just half an hour, the amount of plastic I have come in to contact with is almost impossible to fathom. I grab my laptop and punch the number into the plastic keys and wait for an answer.

I begin our conversation by telling Angela about how a few months earlier my girlfriend and I were travelling up through Oregon and were taken aback by its beauty. We drove through the area of Bandon, where Washed Ashore first began, and aside from the breathtaking coastline, something that really caught our attention as we drove through the main street to grab a bite to eat was a giant colourful seal sculpture, which sat at the top of the street almost overlooking the town. It actually made us turn the car around and head in for a closer look. As we approached the sculpture, we realised it was built entirely out of rubbish. After some reading, we discovered the materials used for the piece was all collected from the beach. Angela tells us her initial concept for the exhibition was just this. “We want to attract people’s attention from far away, get them excited enough to basically the lure them in, and then when you get up close you realise what it is, then we have an opportunity to teach about the issue of plastic pollution in the ocean. That’s the whole point about this Washed Ashore exhibit, is to grab the general public, not just the people who already know about it, but a wide variety of people who want to learn about this real tragedy that we are in the middle of.”

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Born into a family of artists, Angela’s mother was a painter and her father a museum director who both actually met at art school in the 1950s. Art ran deep within, and her upbringing was a rich and colourful journey, which from an early age she learnt importance and power of the arts. “I always had this really strong feeling that the arts were very important, and could change the world, you know. That it’s possible.” Dabbling in ballet and modern dance for a period of time, Angela also fell in love with the performing arts, as well as the collaboration involved in the performing arts. “Performing artists tend to collaborate more than visual artists usually, so I came from this lovingness of the collaboration within art.”

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“The most important part of this whole Washed Ashore movement is about collaboration…it’s all about working together. It’s not just an art project.”

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Having grown up with the parents in the art world, it was only a natural progression for Angela to also have a strong drive to educate others about what she learnt early on, about the importance of art. So she shifted her majors in college to education, with the goal to change the art education scene. Angela taught for close to 30 years, in private schools, public schools and universities across all age levels. “I love teaching all ages, I love the creative challenge of adapting things to different levels, working with a variety of people and abilities, working with people with special needs and all that.” Angela also went on to get a masters degree in education, because she wanted to be validated in the educational world in order to make a difference. “I knew that being an artist by itself would make it hard to get a lot of respect.” However, Angela’s life took a drastic swing when her husband of 25 years began to have a lot of health issues. He ended up having a brain tumour and a massive stroke, became paralysed and then not long after passed away. “It was really a huge hit. When you lose someone you love, it makes you change your whole perspective on things, like what am I doing with my life? So I kind of stopped everything, and decided to move to where my heart always lived, which was at the ocean.” Growing up, Angela spent most of her summers in their family cabin in the small coastal town of Bandon, where her grandparents had also lived their whole life. It was a place she had always loved, a place where she knew the beaches like the back of her hand, a place where she had decided to start over and a place to come and heal. But something had changed…

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“I remember when I first came back taking a walk on the beach, a place where I came to heal, but what I found was an ocean that needed healing. I remember thinking, this can’t be happening. We are destroying the ocean. Man has destroyed so much of the land already and I always thought the ocean was sacred, that you can’t hurt the ocean.” What Angela had discovered was the beaches she had loved and learned from her whole life had become the ocean’s dumping ground, with mosaics of plastic and marine debris as far as the eye could see. Angela told us it had made her literally sick to her stomach. She was looking for a reason to live, a reason to continue.

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Some years earlier, Angela had exhibited a successful sculptural exhibit using only recycled materials, which is what sparked her idea for Washed Ashore. “I had the idea, what if I never buy any more art supplies and I only use what is on the beach and maybe some metal to form the foundations. Would I have enough art supplies? What could I do? And how do I get more people to change? And how can I get the whole community to work with me? And how do we clean up all the beaches? And how do we save the ocean? And then, Washed Ashore was born!”

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Washed Ashore has since grown into a large-scale, community involved, travelling exhibition, made up of lots of volunteers as well as 10 permanent staff. It all begins with the beach clean ups, something Angela tells us they no longer have to organise as Oregonians have been doing this already for a long time. People though can now drop of the marine debris they collect at the Washed Ashore processing plant, Art 101. It is here where 98% of what is brought in (the 2% being really unusable toxic debris) gets sorted, washed, soaked, scrubbed, cut and drilled. Angela tells us it is her job to try and figure out how to show the breadth of what is washed ashore, by using all of it in different ways. Washed Ashore also partner up with all of the state parks of Oregon and other non-profits up and down the coast. They have dumpsters set aside for marine debris that are collected once there full. “We started by just doing the 60 miles either side of Bandon, and now we are up and down the whole coastline.”

After the debris is prepped at Art 101, the sorted supplies are transported to a workshop site at Harbour Town events centre, where they have a full time workshop teacher and an area where the whole community, tourists and volunteers can come in, sit down at a table and help create smaller pieces like the scales of a fish, which become the building blocks for the larger animals. The smaller pieces are then transported back to Art 101 where Angela and her team attach them onto large metal frames to create the finished art. Angela says, “The most important part of this whole Washed Ashore movement is about collaboration, it’s not about me as an artist. It about working with lots of different people, learning from scientists, updating our signage, learning from other educators learning from and connecting with as many different people across the board professionally, and that is really important. It’s all about working together. It’s not just an art project.”

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One of the beautiful things about Washed Ashore is that it is designed to be a travelling exhibit. Already it has travelled to around 9 different locations up and down all of Oregon, Washington and Californian coastline. This summer they are headed to the Virginia Beach Aquarium, San Francisco Zoo as well as having a interesting contact with Sea World where they will be bring the marine debris issue into the parks. “One of the big reasons we decided to display our work in Sea World was to reach the general public and to raise the exposure as much as we can. The people who visit Sea World are generally not your environmental types who already know about the issues, so reaching these people is the key here. Whether you love or hate Sea World, for a lot of people it is the only time they will ever learn about the ocean and the animals. Which is what you have got to do, is reach across all lines and all areas.” Angela believes that the only way we can all move forward is by getting across to as many new people as possible, by educating and informing people about the issues at hand. “There have been a few times now where I will walk into the exhibit and someone will be simply standing there and crying. I’m like, oh my god. To do that that means something, which is deep. And you know that’s the sort of thing that keeps us going because it is a lot of hard work.”

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This coming year Washed Ashore are going to focus their attention more on the educational aspects, and actually write a whole curriculum. They plan to create some activity action books for kids that teach them about the ocean and what is going on, but also what you can do about it based off the whole idea that the arts offer you an opportunity to really push creative thinking and the imagination. Angela mentions a fantastic quote by Albert Einstein “Imagination is more important than knowledge”, which underpins the root of Washed Ashore—reminding people to think outside the box a little, as it is the new ideas and the creative solutions to problems that are going to maybe one day clean up the mess we have created. “One of my favourite stories was one time a little girl about 8 years old came in holding on to her mother’s hand with her grandparents behind her, she instantly started saying, let me teach you about the gyre! It’s this great big thing in the middle of the ocean and it’s FULL of plastic, and its really bad, and look over here… It was amazing, the little girl was the one giving the tour, she knew everything and she is never ever going to forget this, it has become part of her life and she is going to tell lots and lots of people. And I sat there and thought, this is why we do this.”

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Part of the educational aspect of Washed Ashore is about what people can do to minimise the use of plastic within their lives as well as bringing awareness to the issues because of our huge consumption and throw away mentality. “One of the first things I say is next time you go to buy someone a birthday present, is to try and have no plastic associated with it, and see what that feels like. No plastic bag, no plastic packaging and no plastic on the item. What does it makes you do?” Applying this small dose or way of thinking is important Angela believes, as if we were to try and eliminate all the plastic it would be simply too overwhelming. We have become so used to the instant gratification and the fast-paced lifestyle. A world where you don’t have to wash your dishes, you can just throw them away, a world where all our food can be bought in a conveniently wrapped package, to be not long after be thrown away. The things we can do now with plastic is actually quite amazing, and can be beautifully seductive at the same time. But single-use plastic is getting out of control and is choking our oceans at an alarming rate. Angela also asks people look at what bio-degradable things you can introduce into your home, versus plastic. Things like eliminating plastic dishes and cups, try glass, ceramic and wood. Even paper is a least bio-degradable and renewable. Things like cotton fabric versus polyester fabrics, I mean those types of choices are not too hard.

Angela believes that there is still hope, and a lot of people are waking up to the problems of the world. Washed Ashore hopes to one day become a global movement, and spread their ideas worldwide. The ultimate goal is to start educating people across the world that have shore lines, that have their own problems, to create an epidemic art exhibit where all around the world people are creating their own art and educating their own people. They hope this will one day start the ball rolling in terms of legislation changing, relation changing, and behaviour changing within the monstrosity that is the plastic industry. We all however have the power to make our own conscious decisions and try our best to minimise the use of plastics in our lives. Our oceans need our help.

To learn more about the Washed Ashore Project and how you can be a part of this movement, be sure to head over to the website here. More of Helene’s work can be seen at Le Studio De Marie.