Saturday, July 14, 2012

Art Process

We met in the fall of 1999 at Electric Works, Richard's gallery and printing business. Judith had come seeking advice about a book she wanted to publish. Photos of Kehoe Beach strewn on a conference table from a previous meeting prompted the question, “You've never been there?” “I'll show you,” Richard says, and we made a date. At the beach, we both begin picking up plastic bits in the wrack-line. “You gonna keep that?” we ask each other almost simultaneously. It’s a funny business, serendipity, but both of us had been gleaning plastic and making artwork out of it since 1996.

What are the chances that we each could find a kindred soul who had for years been doing this obsessive picking up? Both of us artists, with a lot of painting, drawing, and a similar preclusion for re-contexting found objects, who knew the importance of letting the materials speak.

You say "collaboration" and know it's a joint effort. Two players in a game.  Our sixty years of collective art making put a lot of good things on the table, a lot of experience and a well developed stance; methodologies honed into habit, we knew what we were about in our respective studios. Now we were working together.

Right in the beginning contentions rose up but we developed a workable routine:
From door to shore Kehoe Beach is about 35 minutes from where we live. Usually in an hour or maybe two we can fill our collecting bags with as much as we can carry back, about 50 pounds.

At home the plastic  is washed and dried—then the real fun begins— we sort the plastic by size, by color, by kind. 

We then use this material to shape arrangements that are transported to Richard’s business Electric Works in San Francisco where the work is photographed and printed. Like the plastic that washes onto shore the plastic we have used in our arrangements goes back into our “inventory” to be used in future configurations. The photographs then go out into the world for exhibition in galleries, museums and art spaces to entice and educate the public about the perils of plastic pollution. Since we are concerned about the carbon footprint of crating and shipping heavy works of art, when possible our high resolution files are sent to venues where the images can be printed on site.

Even though the impulse often rears up, we try not to make “something” like a fish or a bird or a portrait or a landscape. We return to our earliest art training in the abstract notions generated by the famous Bauhaus school in Germany. Ideas of rhythm and line, shape and color come into the work—musical composition is the most relevant metaphor.

As dedicated artists with years of studio experience we want to talk to a broad audience curious about what artists do and why. We have been following a path of discovery and we feel this path opens possibilities to the creative life for everyone.

Plastic pollution is the key to what we do, but our work intentionally casts a wide look. We present information about a place and a problem in a multidisciplinary approach. Whether just looking at the vivid photographs of our work or following the serendipity of our story, we want there to be something for everyone.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Planetary Housekeeping

Sometimes beauty can be a call to action. Here, the call to action is to follow some simple rules of planetary housekeeping, but in a larger sense the call to action is to follow the strange voices of inspiration, of compulsion, for the real opposite of beauty is indifference.

Over the years, with the keen eyes of avid connoisseurs, we have established several easy-to-identify categories of recycled materials: juice lids, hair curlers and combs, toy soldiers, Tiparillo tips, toothpaste tube caps to name a few. The sheer number of items we have collected from a one beach reflects the magnitude of what is happening worldwide in the oceans and on the beaches. Our beach, Kehoe Beach, is not extraordinary in the amount of plastic we find.

What started out as an act of "planetary housekeeping" has turned into an immediate and compelling source of free art supplies. From our “inventory” we have made hundreds of two-dimensional artworks and functional sculptures—even Judith’s wedding dress was fashioned entirely from thrown away materials.

Each little piece of trash has a story to tell in its connection to human life. One can tell the story of a culture obsessed by convenience. Another, the hand from a Barbie doll, opens to tell us about our fetish for a certain body type. Bottles, lost toys, small objects of every description are presented as objects of desire.

When introduced in the Thirties, plastic was touted as an exciting new material that would revolutionize our lives and indeed, it has- providing new hips and knees, allowing for unbelievable medical advances and it has inundated our lives. In the daily swirl of debris, from food shopping to consumer goods, plastic is the unseen background of daily living.

Sunday, July 8, 2012


When we gazed upon those first photographs of earth transmitted back from space, we wondered why the planet was ever named “Earth.” Given the land-to-ocean ratio we think it far better to call the place “Sea.”

70% of our planet’s surface is covered with ocean with depths that scale far deeper than the height of Mt. Everest. It is a vast frontier. Ocean currents are the blood pulse of the planet. The winds are as breath driving the weather. Nutrient rich upwellings and estuaries produce the equivalent of all our agricultural zones. Yet, sadly, each year, three times as much trash ends up in the world's oceans as the weight of fish caught. In the United States, an estimated 29 million tons of plastic is thrown away annually and since only a small percentage is recycled, much goes to the landfill and much goes to the oceans.

In 1992 the Save Our Shores course reader The Problem with Marine Debris reported that there were 46,000 pieces of visible plastic floating in every square mile of the ocean. Since then there has not been an accurate count. However, NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, estimates that there has been approximately a 5% increase per year. This shocking fact along with our inability to visualize the magnitude of that quantity compelled us to count and exhibit a representative sample.

Hundreds of pieces of plastic are hung here in a display designed to simulate the animation of colorful bits of plastic floating in the ocean.


The Point Reyes National Seashore, a 70,000-acre park, was established in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy to preserve and protect the natural ecosystems and cultural resources along the undeveloped coastline of the western United States.
In September 2012, the Seashore will be observing its 50th anniversary and there will be many special events marking this significant milestone. Located just an hour's drive from the densely populated metropolitan area of San Francisco, the Seashore is a sanctuary for myriad plant and animal species and for the human spirit — for discovery, inspiration, solitude, and recreation — and exists as a reminder of the human connection to the land.
We are forever beholden to the forces that brought us to this place. Truly wild places are an analgesic to the knocks modern life lays on. The David Browers, the John Muirs, the Clem Millers of the world have been the doctors-in-residence to keep places like the Point Reyes Peninsula healthy and intact. The natural impulse is to join forces and care-take a place we find so nourishing.

We have been blessed to have this place as our “backyard” where we have hiked and camped. We have wandered through tunnels exposed at super low tides seeing anemones and starfish overhead. We have seen a pair of spotted owls, the fluffed-up teddy bears of the raptor world, above us clutching a branch with razor talons. We’ve learned that winter in the forest means fungus. And that, winter on the beach means buffeting storms at sea flush out great quantities of plastic depositing it in swags entangled with the seaweed.

Kehoe Beach was where we had our first date and where we discovered our passion for each other and for picking up plastic detritus from the beach. What are the chances of meeting someone who liked to pick up trash and make art out of it?  It was our good luck and Kehoe Beach became the site of our regular beach combing collecting. We appreciate fresh air and exercise and have, by proximity and by predilection, found Kehoe Beach, a perfect place to enjoy both. 


Over the years we have collected tons of plastic from 1000 yards of one beach - plastic that is evidence of our shared mania for toss-away ease. We've been strangely attracted to this stuff from beautifully patina-ed shards to colorful toys carrying stories of our cultural past. The two of us have become highly competitive creating hierarchies of distinction ”—difficulty of finding, rarity—in our “cabinet of wonders.”

Some collections have intrinsic market value—silver coins from Imperial Rome, hand-tinted illustrated books from the 19th Century. Some collections have great value for the very continuation of biodiversity—in seed-banks containing the “germ plasm” of life. In prehistory, collecting a bit of native gold or a stone of azure lapis found in a stream elevated status propelling one’s genes with advantageous mating.

A branch of semiotics traces the steps of an object as it moves from being just one more “something” into something useful then into something of great value. How does a chipped chunk of pebble picked out of the welter of stones in East Africa, identified as “the earliest tool known” end up as priceless evidence in a glass case in the museum of human development? How do the skeins of of oil paint smeared onto canvas by Jackson Pollock sell for $140 million dollars?

All collections gain value by telling a story. Whether it is the data collection in a birder’s “life list” packed with the experience of “been there, seen that”—or a fossil collection telling tales from the Earth’s book of life—the deeper the story, the greater the value.

Strange and enticing, our collection not only holds our interest, it tells a vivid story of consumer culture and life and times in the 21st Century.

Ghost Nets

Ghost nets are pernicious entanglements of lost commercial fishing gear. Birds, fish, and marine mammals get caught in this silent floating debris —trapped in what is called “ghost fishing.” The “catch” weighs the net down so it sinks. Scavengers consume the contents so the net floats again and continues to sink and rise forever. It is estimated that ghost nets, some up to 4,000 yards long, account for approximately 10% of all marine plastic pollution.

The ghost net used in this display washed up onto Kehoe Beach and is most probably from the North Pacific Gyre. The gyre, an accumulation of plastic caught in circling currents in an area northeast of Hawaii, is sometimes called The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It is estimated to be 300,000 square miles—making it larger than Texas. By both weight and size it is the biggest garbage dump on earth.

Plastic is composed of polymers that never “biodegrade” —they are with us forever sloughing and breaking down to make a polymer soup that outweighs the plankton in this area by a factor of as much as 30 to 1.

When given an opportunity to display our work in the SFMOMA Artist Windows we wanted to create an art savvy image that would give sidewalk passersby a double take — is that a Pollock or is it plastic?

The shape and content of our ghost net “painting” was inspired by Jackson Pollock’s Shimmering Substance, 1946, from his Sounds in the Grass Series. We unraveled line and rope from an enormous ghost net to emulate the skeins of oil on canvas in Pollock’s action painting. Our re-creation was then photographed and printed on canvas at Electric Works, a gallery and fine art print studio in San Francisco. It was first displayed in the SFMOMA Artist Windows on Minna Street, November 2010 - June 2011.

“Shimmering Substance” glows with the brilliant light of midday sun on a thick meadow. Alive with arcs and orbs of heat-saturated colors, the painting is a testimony to the importance of the Long Island landscape as a motivating force of Pollock's work in the late 1940s. from the New York Museum of Modern Art website
Pollock says, “I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them."

Friday, July 6, 2012

Naming the Floats

“Boat Brand” fishing float. We have some fifty in our collection. A three-masted schooner sailing a sea above the "trade mark" sign. Why are they are the same salmon-y-pink color as the parts of Barbies and Kens we find? Who knows?

The "Lucky Brand" floats, which we also find, are pale beige. Lucky Brand has a circle logo with the image of two fish, Pisces horoscope style, swimming above and below one another. Now, just who decided what the things were going to be called? Is it wishful thinking?

Fishermen are a superstitious lot. There is some science to it all and a good fisherman tries for the repeatability of science. Set the bait, set the depth. But a friend of ours who worked for the Fisheries and Aquaculture Department of the World Bank told us a story of trying to introduce a little science to Malaysian fishermen. They scoffed—if Allah wants us to catch fish, we will catch fish. We pray to Allah for fish, not the World Bank.

This is a fragment of a trawl float. We’ve picked up over seventy large, whole floats and hundreds of shards like this from shattered ones. The standard float is basketball size, functioning to hold open the 100-yard mouth of a trawl net. The maw of the net, weighted on the bottom, slurps up everything in its path. Estimates vary, but “bycatch”—non-targeted creatures caught in the nets and discarded—can be up to 90% of the catch in shrimp trawling. The enormous debris paths of the disturbed sea floor from a bottom trawl are visible from space.

We’ve found many floats still attached to their nets—nets weighing hundreds of pounds—too heavy to haul home. These pieces of fishing gear were once made of glass, cork or wood; now, like everything else it’s plastic. We’ve found two antique green-blue glass globes, so long at sea they are crusted with coral-like remains.


There are lots of pump dispenser nozzles to be found on the beach and plenty of Internet outlets selling fresh ones. All these devices look pretty much the same, a tank turret with the gun barrel drooped down.

An Internet image search presents pumps from Xin Yuan Plastic Manufacturing in Malaysia, then a similar pump from the Rong Mao Xion Plastic Injection Co. of China. A business listing service directs us to tons of plastic merchandise from bowls to beads. Continuing on, the search leads to the American Chemistry Council where we are conveyed to a history of plastic from Celluloid to Bakelite to modern polymer thermo-plastics. Fascinating, and worthy of study since plastic is the background hum of our material world.

These seemingly insignificant pump dispenser nozzles are international travelers bringing us the big story of plastic in our world.

Among all the bits of plastic, spray tips are one more little speck among the mountains of plastic this culture produces. In our artwork they serve as bright rhythmic punctuations. Aerosols and their nozzles have been around since WWII to spray DDT in the tents of soldiers fighting in the Pacific. Furniture polish, air fresheners, WD-40—convenient—but it takes special treatment to recycle the cans.

What boy hasn’t held a lit match under the nozzle of a spray paint can and whooshed out a hissing roaring plume of stinking flame? A thrill secreted in the garage. For girls it was hair spray coming out of those spray tips, lacquering the bouffant—a solid bonnet, safe against a gale.

The good news—CFC’s, the ozone-killing propellant for aerosols, were banned with the Montreal Protocols of 1989, an international effort—a benchmark showing us we can work together to improve this world.

Making It Green

Why make a fake grape leaf? Of course, to add oomph to a garland of grapes for a fruit bowl table decoration. At the beach we have found a couple of lone grapes, a fake apple, a lime and a dozen plastic lemon juice squeezers. In our collection of fake plastic flora are fruit, leaves, mini-trees and flower buds. A four-leaf clover also shows up—lucky us.

Plastic trees are sprouting up in our neighborhoods, disguising cell towers as spruce trees or palms. We all want ample “bars.”

Simulacraceae is the satirical taxon given to fake plants by a group of botanists from Cornell and Yale. Plastic plants are new since the 1950’s but even ancient Egyptians made fake plants of metal and stone and papyrus. Plastic fruit endures, it’s plastic, it lasts forever, no refrigeration required . . .

AstroTurf®, Styrofoam®, Formica®, Plexiglas®—synthetic brand names to define the synthetic plastic world. They become so familiar that the product name becomes the actual name of the thing.

This gray piece of plastic grass is from a doormat. It’s AstroTurf®, invented by Monsanto and was first named Chemgrass. After its installation at the Astrodome in Houston it became known as AstroTurf®. In 1966 the Houston Oilers played the first pro-football game on 125,000 square feet of it. There may be dozens of manufacturers of artificial grass (Waterless Grass®, SYNlawn®, Easyturf®) but we call all of it astroturf.

These days Astroturf-ing is a political pejorative meaning a grass-roots movement artificially manipulated by a large public relations firm—a grass-roots movement with no roots.

Child's Play

At last count, we’ve found 116 plastic hair clips at Kehoe Beach—fanciful adornments with poodles, teddy bears, pudgy baby elephants and one kitty-cat playing a fiddle. Girly themes. Butterflies and bows. Some have spots of crude oil. Some are broken and scarred, but they are all brightly colored and cute for little girls.

It’s obvious that a vibrant hot-pink soccer-playing girl with not much abrasion is a recent arrival in the ocean. She’s new in the body politic and so new to us she actually didn’t make it into the print. She’s no cute cuddle thing; she’s an animated being in the act of smacking a header into the net. She’s Miss Title IX. The 1972 Act of Congress gave equal rights to millions of girls, mandating the funds that allowed them to play sports in public school. By the early Nineties the many court cases arising out of Title IX had been decided and all across the country girl’s soccer teams seemed to spring up over night.

Cute still rules with some girls—but on the beach we find another avenue of identity has sprung into our cultural life.

When we’re on the hunt, the detail on these tiny plastic toys is so precise relative to the other flotsam at the surf line, they come into focus easily. Cowboys & Indians, Civil War soldiers, space-men, and pirates washing up onto the beach chronicle the history of our conflicts. The miniature hand grenades and rifles make it clear that war is our subtext and whether it is the internal conflict of life’s decision-making or real war, these little figures are a way for the psyche to prepare.

In 1913 H.G. Wells published Little Wars, a set of rules for playing with “army men.” As a pacifist it was his hope that the ravages of war would teach a different way. There have, of course, been dolls since the beginning of human history and soldier figures have been found in Egyptian tombs. The imagination is ignited by toys and like a kitten batting a ball in preparation for mouse hunting; toy soldiers can prepare one for life’s battles.

The motto of Classic Toy Soldiers, Inc. has it right:
“No batteries required...powered by imagination.”

Hair Do and Don't

Primping has been around for a long time—at least 22,000 years as the Venus of Willendorf shows us with her curly do. The 4 1/2 inch figurine comes across the spread of time from pre-history to tell us that people were already using the symbolic mind to evoke a vision of perfection. And today, the pile of hair curlers we’ve collected from Kehoe Beach tells us we’re still at it. The image of perfection, the ideal presented at the beauty salon does what it has always done, slicing away at indifference, bringing us to choice. Do I like this or that? Choices defining aspiration: for mating, for companionship, for direction.

Of course, for the woman of the 50’s and early 60’s, the plastic hair curler was a torture device—sleeping on a nest of the tubes made for a restless night. Beauty sleep? There was a great relief when the natural hairstyles of the 70's hippy age saw a respite from hair curling.

Nice’ n Easy

Lustre Santé /Healthy Shine, fabrique aux EU/ made in the US, révitalisant /conditioner. The pearlescent five-ounce bottle looks like it came as part of a kit from Clairol’s nice ‘n easy brand. It’s the hair treatment applied after coloring, the finishing step in the dream of self-improvement. It’s as if we in the industrialized world inhabit the realm of Marquises or Dukes; make-up and hair dyes, once reserved for the very privileged, now line the vast shelves in any drug store, superette or superstore. 

In Classical Antiquity, it was soldiers who dyed their hair—the Romans darkened and the Greeks lightened—signs of strength and courage. In 1956, when Clairol introduced the “Does she or doesn’t she?” ads, the number of American women coloring their hair jumped to over 70%. Was hair coloring the start of something? “Is it true, do blonds have more fun?” and “The closer he gets, the better you look.” —all Clairol ad tag lines—most effective!


We found a two-foot section of a plastic 2x6 board on the beach, a cut-off scrap, most likely the end of a larger piece of decking. How to parse that one? This washed-up plastic board, made from trashed plastic, will never be anything other than plastic pollution once its usefulness has expired. Once the mix of all kinds of plastic is made into a board, it will never be another something—only more landfill, more toxins leaching out to the sea. And, if I have to replace my old redwood deck...? What will I do? I sure don’t want to cut more trees—oh boy livin' large in the age of trash.

Plastic is seldom recycled. It is either down-cycled or up-cycled. Confused? Up-cycling means making something more useful from trash like making fleece clothes from PET bottles. Down-cycling converts waste into something useful but less functional, like shampoo bottles into shipping pallets, into boards like this 2x6. Once the down-up has happened that’s the end of the line— a slight detour in a straight line toward the trash. No chasing arrows.

Recycling means used over again for a similar purpose—an aluminum can becomes an aluminum can; a glass bottle becomes a glass bottle.

Feeling "green washed?" Just when you were feeling so virtuous tossing that plastic water bottle in the proper bin, you find out that the container industry has been hard at it putting the onus on the consumer. For years, instead of taking responsibility at the source, billions of bottles are spewing out and into the waste stream. The container industry has resisted putting a return tax, or bottle deposits and has actively moved to defeat bill after bill. Remember “No Deposit, No Return?”

The true costs of plastic are never fig'ered into the equation. But what happens next? Maybe the Cradle-to-Cradle idea?  This is the most sustainable concept yet devised—make stuff in closed loops, feeding the natural cycle and the techno cycle. The natural cycle is about composting, converting "waste" to food or soil. The techno cycle is about true recycling—that a can becomes a can again. Creating plastic that can have several lives as the same thing. The sole of a flip-flop becomes a new sole. And yet, picking up a four pound 2x6 piece of plastic and carrying it home feels like a tiny virtue. And telling about it, feels like a breath of sanity.

Pattern Recognition

This little duck is exactly 11 millimeters across the bottom or .43 inches. Here he is pictured just as we found him, with a couple of nurdles—pre-production plastic pellets. To see it in the swirl of tons of other plastic takes a sharp eye and lots of practice. Judith gets the prize for her awesome skill at pattern recognition.

We sent the pic of our duck on to our friend Curtis Ebbesmeyer, author with Eric Scigliano of FLOTSAMETRICS AND THE FLOATING WORLD: How One Man’s Obsession with Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science.  Curt is the oceanographer who uses cargo spills to track currents, most famously tracking a bunch of spilled rubber duckies. We surmised that maybe our diminutive duck had been at sea so long it shrunk?

The little fella it turns out is a cake decorating jimdad. 


Looks like this little fella, given his helmet and the rest of the kit he’s toting, is from the Wehrmacht, the WWII German army. Poised, ready to shoot, a cog in Der Führer’s army. He’s been out at sea a long, long time, finally coming to rest on Kehoe Beach, far from home, far from the war.

He’s sporting a colony of distinctive honeycomb little homes, the mineralized skeletons of Bryozoans. Skeletons or houses—Bryozoans love growing on the slick surfaces of kelp and seashells. And, on the slick surfaces of plastic. In some ways Bryozoans are a “tell” of how long a particular piece of plastic has been at sea. It takes a few years to grow a good-sized colony. Not always a good time-marker, though. When the growth becomes too dense and out-weighs the buoyancy of the plastic, the piece sinks; killing the colony with deep-sea pressure and the piece bobs up again, sans Bryozoans.

Bryozoans can switch genders in a life-cycle with body parts that show that they’ve evolved to the level of complexity of earthworms. They arrived on the scene over 500,000,000 years ago and are still with us.

Bryozoa by Ernst Haeckel

Our little Wehrmacht Soldat reminds us that great armies rise and fall, but plastic could be with us as long as Bryozoans.

Pink Flamingos

Conjure up the tackiest, most unnecessary plastic product ever made and the pink flamingo lawn ornament may come to mind. It seems as if they have inhabited front lawns forever, but pink flamingo-ness was born in 1957, the brainchild of Don Featherstone of Leominster, MA.

Featherstone was a recent art-school grad in the mid-fifties who sculpted the original flamingo out of clay after trying out various birds—ducks and geese that would have been more in keeping with his New England landscape, but they never "took off" like the flamingos.

The official copy-written birds come in sets of two, one bending its sinuous neck to eat and one upright alert. Over 20 million have been sold by Union Plastics alone. There are knockoffs, of course. But we believe the head we found on Kehoe Beach is authentic. The plastic is thick and sturdy. As the years unfolded the plastic became ever thinner and more and more red. Though to authenticate we'd need the whole body intact since Featherstone's signature appears on the underside.

Plastic flamingos turn up everywhere, most recently as a marker that US soldiers had been around, like the "Kilroy Was Here" graffito of WWII. A couple of flamingos grace the now-dry fountain at the US Embassy in Baghdad.

Why flamingos?

We think maybe the flamingo mania came with an early 1920's romance about retirement to Florida, though flamingos are not endemic to Florida. A flock of the Caribbean variety was imported to the lake in the center of the Hialeah Racetrack in the 20's, where a flamingo ashtray souvenir may have started the craze or maybe it was Don Featherstone's desire to escape the New England winter.

Bugsy Siegal's trademark Las Vegas gambling palace hotel is The Flamingo. Crayola introduced the color Pink Flamingo in 1998. John Water's movie Pink Flamingos (what better name for bad taste) is the benchmark by which all things vulgar are measured. The Flamingos biggest doo-wop hit in 1959 was "I Only Have Eyes for You."

We figure if those 20 million pink flamingos were laid up like tiles, they would cover 40 Kehoe Beaches. We've been lucky enough to see real flamingos in the wild, a sparse flock in a volcanic lake in the Galapagos Islands and spectacularly huge flocks at Lake Manyara in Tanzania.


Imagine pulling the tab from a plastic drink bottle. That ring of plastic matching the lid. Zip and it’s off. Then toss it “away”.  These bright rings of plastic find their way into the sea where they are ingested by birds, turtles and marine mammals. They have been found in the bellies of Laysan Albatross nesting 2500 miles away from the nearest land. Thanks to Chris Jordan for photographing this heartbreaking "canary in a coal mine." 

These tamper-resistant devices came along after the Tylenol® cyanide terror event in 1982. Seven people were killed. It was the 9/11 incident for packaging. That one moment in American history is the generator of a lot of plastic garbage. Think of the safety seals on cottage cheese, yogurt, all kinds of medicine, on and on, giving assurance that some crazy person with a flock of demons cycling through the brain hasn’t slipped deadly poison into what you are about to swallow.

What to do?

Imagine choosing glass bottles or aluminum cans when you go to the superette or convenience store. Glass and aluminum recycles 100's of times and is secure without extra gizmos adding to the waste stream. Plastic mostly never is recycled but sometimes once. What is the true cost of cheap plastic? Let's sharpen our pencils and do some figgerin'…