Plastic-pollution art installations make splash at Institution

Jane Batten and Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill check out “Bella – Angelfish & Reef” May 31 outside of the Main Gate Welcome Center during a special preview event of the “Washed Ashore” exhibit. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Mariia Novoselia
Staff writer

If you decide to enter the grounds of Chautauqua from the lake, chances are a curious, colorful sculpture of a fish will catch your eye long before the anchor of your sailboat catches the bottom of the lake. Should you decide to walk down South Lake Drive upon your arrival, passing Palestine Park and multiple docks, you will soon run into Rufus the Triggerfish. 

Rufus the Triggerfish, striking, vibrant and full of character, has plastic fins sticking out of his bottle-cap-embellished body, and a coarse chunk of a green plastic basket decorates its pedestal. Rufus the Triggerfish is one of the 14 sculptures made of plastic ocean debris that are spread out across the grounds of Chautauqua this season as part of the “Washed Ashore —Art to Save the Sea” exhibit. 

The story of the initiative Washed Ashore goes back to 2010, when the idea to collect debris from the ocean and create sculptures using them was born. Since that time, “tens of thousands” of volunteers have been engaged in the project, said Katie Dougherty, executive director at Washed Ashore. 

Mark Wenzler, director of the Chautauqua Climate Change Initiative, said the process of getting Washed Ashore’s sculptures to Chautauqua started two years ago, after he had a conversation about the exhibit with Jane Batten, whose philanthropy has been critical to both the CCI and the “Washed Ashore” exhibit.  

“It became clear that this would be a really great thing to bring to Chautauqua,” Wenzler said.

Debris, which is the main source material for all the sculptures, is collected from the southern coast of Oregon, Dougherty said. Project volunteers clean these elements of future sculptures with a solution of vinegar and sort them by color. In some cases, debris is cut up into smaller pieces. Next, with the help of volunteers, artists design sculptures by creating a body of steel, layering it with recycled tires and then embellishing it with the debris. 

Since its beginning, Washed Ashore has collected over 32 tons of plastic from the ocean and created approximately 90 sculptures, Dougherty said. 

Judy Barie, Susan and John Turben director of Chautauqua Visual Art Galleries, said what appealed to her the most was the sheer size of the sculptures, which she described as impactful. 

Barie said her role in the project was to select spots around the Institution for the sculptures. 

“It is just like staging a show — everything is intentional,” she said.  

The process of establishing the placement of each sculpture took place in April, and the installation only took a couple of days, including Barie’s favorite: Nora the Salmon. 

“She is pretty gorgeous,” she said, noting the artwork’s movement.

Nora is made of toilet seats, sunglasses, shovels, boots and bottle caps; her nose, Barie pointed out, is a remote control. 

Dougherty said some of the most common items that volunteers find as they are sorting the debris are plastic bottles, lids, lighters, buoys and nets. More surprising finds include a hot tub and the front end of a car. 

The most extraordinary item that ended up in a sculpture on the grounds of Chautauqua, in Barie’s opinion, is a tire that serves as the core element of Eli the Eel. Barie said she was “surprised by all of it and upset by all of it,” but what stood out to her the most was the  absurd fact that “somebody would actually, physically throw a tire into the ocean.”

Eli the Eel is located inside the Smith Memorial Library over the grand central staircase. Dozens of yellow lighters, bottle caps, cans and beach toys adorn the eel’s otherwise black body of a tire, creating a signature pattern. 

Scott Ekstrom, library director, said he wanted a sculpture that would hang from the ceiling, keeping in mind accessibility and the library’s limited floor space. 

Ekstrom said he and his team were delighted to have Eli the Eel keeping them company and he hopes the project will generate a new audience for the library, as the sculptures attract both kids and adults.

If you’d rather enter Chautauqua from the mainland, you’ll still see the sculptures within your first minutes at the Institution. Three artworks are located at the Main Gate Welcome Center. 

As Chautauquans are lining up to get their gate passes, over 20 jellyfish — of many different colors and with a varied selection of objects in substitution for their tentacles, like a purple Crocs shoe or an orange toothbrush — are hanging from the ceiling. 

Alison Barry, director of patron experience, ticketing, and group sales, said the public’s reception of the sculptures has been positive. She said children especially like looking at all the works at the Welcome Center. 

Barry said the scale of the pieces attracts attention from afar, and when people get closer, they learn what the sculptures are made of, which is eye-opening.  

“I love the idea of transforming something negative into something positive, or at least into something that creates awareness,” Barry said.

Awareness, along with mindfulness, are among the main goals that Dougherty highlighted when talking about Washed Ashore’s work.  

Wenzler particularly likes that the project “brings attention to things that we can have an impact on in our daily lives,” and it makes him feel “empowered to get rid of plastic in (his) life and make a difference.”

“I love the fact that ‘Washed Ashore’ opens a conversation. It lets people understand that there is a problem, but it does so in a way that is not intimidating or threatening. It’s inspiring,” Wenzler said. “It gives every single person a role to play in solving the problem.”

The exhibition will be up at Chautauqua until Oct. 31.


The author Mariia Novoselia

Mariia Novoselia is a senior at Western Kentucky University studying journalism with a minor in political science. Born and raised in Odesa, Ukraine, she previously attended Odesa I. I. Mechnikov National University. She has experience writing for student publications and interning at a local newspaper in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Summer 2023 will be her first season on the grounds of Chautauqua, where she will be covering environmental issues. Mariia is also a music enthusiast, and when not writing, she enjoys singing and playing the guitar.