Ocean refuse hits the activist runway

David Briggs
Local artists, including Judith Selby Lang — here dressed in a wedding dress made of plastic bags— will turn beach litter into haute couture at a trashion show this Saturday, hoping to bring awareness to ocean pollution.

To rephrase the old adage, one person’s trash is another person’s haute couture.

This Saturday, Project Green Runway will be adding some glitz to the unglamorous topic of ocean trash by inviting local artists and designers to showcase their trash-based clothing designs on a catwalk at Marin Recycling and Sanitary Services.

The event, dubbed a “trashion” show, aims to raise awareness for the plight of oceans and sea life choked by plastic waste, and to promote “pre-cycling,” whereby consumers try to avoid generating garbage in the first place.

“Living in West Marin, there is a real sense of place and responsibility for that place,” show organizer and ecologist Christin Anderson said. “The trashion show is an easy and fun way of delivering the message.”

The crush of wasted materials in our modern life is indeed staggering. The average American produces 7.1 lbs of trash every day — or 102 tons across a lifetime. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that America’s daily trash load increased by a third from 1980 to 2000, and Americans now make 50 percent more garbage than any other Western economy with similar standards of living. Studies done by Columbia University and BioCycle found that Americans were actually producing twice as much waste as the EPA let on, and were recycling far less.

In his book “Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash,” author Edward Hume writes, “[I]f trash were a product, it would surpass everything else Americans manufacture […] It is our greatest export.”

And much of that trash ends up in the sea. “Plastic does not biodegrade, it photodegrades,” Ms. Anderson, a Woodacre resident who wrote her Master’s thesis on the effect of plastics in the Pacific Ocean, said. “It breaks down into little pieces, and pelagic life mistake it for plankton and think it’s something to consume.”

When a sea creature ingests the toxic plastic particles, it prevents the absorption of nutrients in regular foods, causing the animal to starve to death. Ms. Anderson was first drawn to her work after attending an environmental forum that showed how animals all over the world die from consuming waste.

“I just thought, I’ve got to do something about this,” she said. “I went and got the scientific knowledge, and now I’ve got to make it fun.”

Ms. Anderson developed Project Green Runway with Elise Cheval, an artist focusing on non-recyclable materials and the environment. Ms. Anderson and Ms. Cheval have created some of the outfits on display, as have more than 30 artists and students from around the Bay Area who will take part in the show.

“I’m just putting the finishing touches on the jellyfish outfit,” Ms. Anderson said from her home on Tuesday, referring to a costume made of construction plastic — the kind used to wrap buildings and lumber — which Ms. Anderson says is a particularly obnoxious and wasteful use of material. For the outfit, she painted the plastic an ocean blue with glittering jellyfish designs.

As a contemporary artist, Ms. Cheval said she had both the responsibility and the opportunity to engage her audience with a social message. “That’s when things shift,” she said. “I want to use the artist message to draw people in. We live in a time when community is the key, and we all have to come together and do our part.”

Prior to her interest in cleaning up the oceans, Ms. Cheval was a fiber arts sculptor and performance artist creating knitted garments from audiocassette tape, among other projects. Like Ms. Anderson, she was drawn to speak out on behalf of the oceans after seeing a scientific presentation — this one about turtles who accidentally ingested single-use plastic bags, thinking they were jellyfish.

“You can’t just walk up to someone and start talking about the ocean,” Ms. Cheval said. “You have to grab their heart first.”

Ms. Cheval and Ms. Anderson decided to join forces after meeting at Ms. Cheval’s Plastic Fashion Exhibit earlier this year at O’Hanlon Center for the Arts, in Mill Valley. They agreed that the public needed to learn how to better serve the oceans, and launched Project Green Runway to get youth involved. The mission was to promote creative self-expression, community collaboration and youth leadership.

“We wanted to be as open as possible,” Ms. Anderson said. “So we have a wide variety of people bringing their work.”

One of those people is Forest Knolls-based artist Judith Selby Lang, whose real-life wedding dress, made entirely of “upcycled” materials, will be featured in the collection. She wore it as she wed Richard Lang, another artist working with beach-salvaged plastics, at Burning Man in 2004.

Based around a thrift store bodice and skirt, the dress is ornamented by ruffles and rosettes made from discarded drycleaner bags, and is encrusted with carefully selected pieces of plastic beach detritus, sewn along the hem like feathers and jewels. The ensemble includes a plastic garland crown, adorned with pink plastic flowers and little green plastic leaves — all salvaged. The result is nothing short of diaphanous.

“I made the dress out of plastic because plastic — like diamonds — is forever,” Ms. Selby Lang said with a twinkle.

Mr. Lang and Ms. Selby Lang met in 1999, and went to Kehoe Beach in Point Reyes National Seashore for their first date. Each had no idea that the other was already engaged in the process of making ocean trash into art.

“He picked up this piece of plastic from the beach and I said, ‘Are you going to keep that?’ You don’t find too many people that are going to match in that way,” she said.

Since then, the couple has focused on collecting debris from a 1,000-yard stretch of Kehoe Beach, and incorporating it into sculptures, paintings, jewelry and — yes, fashion. Their works have included wreaths of toy soldiers and necklaces made from discarded shotgun shells. Plastic bags and broken combs, defunct lighters and lone flip-flops, barrettes and cake toppers have all found their way across the waves, onto the sand, and into the couple’s startling and whimsical artwork.

“We’re focusing on just that stretch of beach in order to show what just one person, or one couple, can do for a single area,” Ms. Selby Lang said. “It can feel so daunting, but choosing one section and being rigorous about it can make a difference.”

In a 2011 short film called One Plastic Beach, Mr. Lang said that in making their two-dimensional works, the couple was inspired by artists like Kandinsky and Matisse.

“People comment, “Oh but your work is so beautiful,’” Ms. Selby Lang said. “And why not? Why wouldn’t we want to make something incredibly beautiful and enticing?”

Mr. Lang added: “The opposite of beauty is not ugliness. The opposite of beauty is indifference. […] Plastic in itself is not evil, but there is an evil, and the evil is single-use plastic.”

The phenomena of the trashion show has been gaining in popularity in recent years, taking the practices of thrifting, upcycling and repurposing to a whole new level. Last year Aveda sponsored a San Francisco trashion show in partnership with Bay Area salons to help raise money for the Clean Water Fund. Garments included a structured newspaper blazer, and a yellow and red strapless evening gown made from Lay’s potato chip bags.

This Saturday’s show is sponsored by Good Earth Natural Foods, which will donate hors d’oeuvres, Rainbow Fabrics in Fairfax, Turtle Island Restoration Project in Forest Knolls, and the Mainstreet Moms of Point Reyes Station. It begins at 4 p.m. at Marin Recycling and Sanitary Services, 535 Jacoby Street in San Rafael. The event is free, and guests are encouraged to carpool. Seating will be limited to 100 people.