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Marine debris “has changed my life and I live with it everyday,” says artist Peter Clarkson. “It’s got the push and the pull of being garbage, but at the same time I find it very inspirational to use for art.”

Garbage or art? B.C. beachcombers give marine debris second life

Ocean plastic pollution might be a constant fixture in today’s headlines, but it’s a problem that beachcombing marine debris artists have known about for decades.

There may be trillions of pieces of potentially toxic plastic in the ocean, but some people are finding creative ways to respond to the world’s marine debris problem. For some beachcombers on the west coast of Vancouver Island, the junk washing ashore is a source of inspiration for their art.

“I figure if you pick it up and bring it home, you have to do something with it,” says Mary Christmas, a retiree and beachcomber in Ucluelet, B.C., whose living room hosts the first glass ball she found on the region’s shores in 1968. Such balls, which were once used by fishermen as floats, are treasured finds among beachcombers on Vancouver Island’s Pacific Rim.

Bucket in hand, Christmas visits local beaches every day to gather marine debris. She throws out garbage like water bottles and styrofoam, while holding onto natural treasures like whale bones and sand dollars, as well as colourful man-made debris. Her home brims with her finds, both inside and out.

On her back porch, birds flitter to bird houses amid strings of colourful plastic buoys, previously lost or discarded by marine industries. A lamp hanging above her dining table is adorned with an assortment of metal spoons and forks, green with patina, that she found on the beach.

Beachcomber Mary Christmas stands outside her home in Ucluelet, B.C.
She decorated her back porch with colourful buoys and other debris gathered from the beach.
Christmas sells lampshades she makes from colourful pieces of glass and other debris she finds on the beach.
Her bathroom is adorned with treasures from the beach, including a model of her house made from marine debris by artist Judy Schmidt.
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The recent media and political spotlight on plastic pollution in the ocean underscores what Christmas and other seasoned beachcombers have known for decades: clean as they may look from a distance, the world’s oceans are inundated with trash.

Seeing junk wash up on the west coast over decades has made Mary Christmas pessimistic. “When are people going to learn?” she asks. “When are people going to care about the earth and the ocean and the beaches?”

Even though plastic pollution has now reached record levels, scientists first published research papers on plastic floating in the ocean in the early 1970s. They have also found records of marine turtles ingesting plastic bags dating back to the late 1950s and first reported cases of seabirds and seals ingesting plastic in the 1960s, including in Newfoundland in 1962.

Peter Clarkson, a self-taught marine debris artist and a warden at the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, says he was shocked by the garbage he saw when he first moved to the region in 1998.

“Marine debris, plastic, you name it, spread on some of the most remote and wild, pristine areas of the national park,” he recalls. Over the years, Clarkson has gathered hundreds of pieces of seemingly random debris, such as baseball cap rims and umbrella handles. “It didn’t seem to even be on anyone’s radar that this shouldn’t be here.”

Judy and Tom Schmidt, married artists who settled on Vancouver Island after leaving the United States as draft dodgers in the 1960s, say they first became aware of litter in the ocean when they were children in California in the 1950s.

The Schmidts with a glass ball, a prized find among beachcombers on the west coast of Vancouver Island. “They’re just fun to find — like real treasure,” says Judy Schmidt.
Glass balls and tags from fishing crates gathered by the Schmidts and their son on beaches on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
Tom Schmidt holds up a tiki head carved from driftwood and with eyes made from abalone in his home in Ucluelet, B.C.
Judy Schmidt has been making birdhouses from driftwood since 1991.
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Since then, they’ve incorporated all kinds of debris, ranging from driftwood to plastic, in their work. They report clearing fluorescent light bulbs, fishing rope and even a laptop from the beach on recent walks. They go daily, with garbage bags in hand, and worry about the environmental impact of the junk, especially the stuff that doesn’t wash up.

“What we see is just like the very, very tip of the iceberg. The big problem is offshore,” says Tom Schmidt. “But we can keep what we have here a little bit clean.”

For Peter Clarkson, such concerns make his passion “bittersweet”; he worries about the environment even as he gets joy from his art. But the very nature of the material is at the heart of his artistic process, he explains.

“It allows me to be fearless because, at the end of the day, it’s just garbage. If it doesn’t work, so what? At least it’s off the beach.”

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