The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Heidi Zemach
For The LOG 

Debris exhibit is couple's dream


Heidi Zemach | For The LOG

"Shed Bird Stomach Contents," a photograph taken in 2004 by Susan Middleton, is one of several stunning images featured in the new Anchorage Museum exhibit, "GYRE: The Plastic Ocean."

Images both beautiful and horrifying, created from marine debris that is clogging oceans and washing up on shores, are reaching into the hearts and consciences of people who attend a new display at Anchorage Museum.

"GYRE: The Plastic Ocean" is the realization of an ambitious dream by a Seward couple who worked hard to make it happen – Howard Ferren, the Conservation Director of the Alaska SeaLife Center until recently, and Dyan, a marine debris artist.

Dyan came up with the idea of inviting artists to participate in an expedition of Resurrection Bay and to create an art exhibit from it while participating in a beach cleanup with Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance on the research vessel Norseman. Her husband, a scientist, agreed that debris art would be a great way to help connect regular citizens, who tend not to read scientific journals to better understanding the marine-debris gyre phenomenon, and the global problems that the debris is causing to the planet.

The surface circulation of the oceans is dominated by gyres, or spinning vortexes of wind and current, that these days also collect and redistribute much of the marine debris in the oceans. The gyres create floating plastic islands of debris that may be hundreds of thousands of miles in diameter. The GYRE project tells the story of global ocean debris (plastics, driftwood and fishing nets) through the work of 26 marine-debris artists from around the world. While Dyan searched for the top marine-debris artists to contribute, Howard forged a partnership between the Anchorage Museum which would help create and hold the art exhibit, and the Alaska SeaLife Center, which would sponsor a related summer expedition aboard the Norseman, with scientists, science-writers and artists. It took place last summer, and several exhibits feature marine debris collected during the journey. Ferren also commissioned a 20-minute National Geographic documentary that accompanies the exhibit, and also a book.

The Ferrens are thrilled at how well the Anchorage Museum exhibit, expedition, short documentary and book all came together in the end. The exhibit was masterfully achieved by Julie Decker, the museum's executive director, and they hope that many people will attend it and its many related educational seminars and trainings, and that it will engage them, and encourage them to reexamine their own consumer habits, and will stimulate more conversations on the topic.

One of the show's most disturbing images is a colorful photograph taken by Susan Middleton in 2004, revealing the stomach contents of a dead albatross chick or Shed Bird she discovered on a beach. The chick's stomach contained 2.2 ounces of trash including several bottle caps, two disposable cigarette lighters, an aerosol pump top, a piece of a shotgun shell, broken clothespins, toys and more. They are laid out in a circle on a sheet of white plastic. The albatross chicks are fed all forms of plastic detritus by their parents, believing it to be food, which can lead to malnutrition, dehydration and starvation.

Artist Steve McPherson contributed an unusual "museum of the discarded" for the show featuring 70 marine/beach plastic objects that he found along the coast of the England. They're arranged in glass display cases under various taxonomies he thought up, each item stuck through with an entomology pin and carefully labeled like old butterfly collections were. One display case holds 18 tiny plastic doll heads showing a variety of emotions and characteristics. Another case holds plastic arms, legs and torsos, while a third has tiny plastic dogs of all types, wave-worn and sun-bleached. These lost toys, now scientific data, are particularly disturbing as they once were cherished by children.

"I think it's sad," said 7-year old Audrey Mack, who visited the show Sunday with her father and her little brother Adam.

But the exhibit also makes a point of showing all of the things currently being done around to remove, recycle, or reinvent uses for the marine debris. One panel discusses the thousands of tons of ocean debris already cleaned from beaches across Alaska, while another suggests 10 easy tips for how people can help. It suggests always putting lids on trash cans, drinking tap water or using metal water bottles rather than plastic, keeping garbage from entering the water while boating, reducing the amount of non-degradable materials one uses, and recycling it whenever possible. Others suggest one should participate in coastal cleanups, use ashtrays for butts, and rethink the entire relationship with plastics.

Sue Ryan, a North Queensland, Australia-based artist who works with the Ghost Nets organization, contributed a life-size "Ghost Dog," sculptured from recycled wire, synthetic ghost (abandoned fishing) net, beach rope and cotton thread. The Ghost Nets organization has removed more than 12,000 free-floating fishing nets from the remote Australian oceans and beaches.

"We experience a large problem here in Alaska, but so much of the material comes from many different sources, and unless we address the problem at the source we are going to continue to experience the impact," said Howard Ferren. The devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck coastal Japan in March 2011, producing an estimated five million tons of debris, is the most obvious example of this global connection. Within 10 months, some of the tsunami debris was washing up on Alaska beaches, highlighting what has been an ongoing, chronic problem.

"I like grand projects. I was really motivated. I knew that we can make this happen," Ferren said, noting that he encountered many obstacles and had to complete the project without pay after the grant money ran out. "It was a matter of perseverance over many years to raise the money and get sufficient support and momentum. But after you get people on board like (noted science author) Dr. Carl Safina and (distinguished artist) Pam Longobardi, and organizations like the Anchorage Museum – then you couldn't afford to fail."

The Anchorage Museum exhibit runs through Sept 6.


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