By GINNY VAN ALYEA
I have been to the Shedd Aquarium many times since having children. It's a wonderfully interactive and stimulating place to view so many fish and animals up close in gorgeous aquatic environments.
The Shedd is ultimately much more than a Chicago destination for families and tourists. Scientists at the Shedd are devoted, both publicly and behind the scenes, to saving endangered species and their habitats. Their animal care experts rescue and rehabilitate wildlife in need, across the country and around the world.
An ongoing exhibition uses art to make the case for how important it is for all of us to work to save these beautiful animals, since there is a crisis in our waters. Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea is a limited-time installation featuring colorful sculptures of a 11-foot seahorse, a sinuous 13-foot-long eel, a 150-pound anemone and seven other gigantic aquatic animals.
The sculptures are fun to behold, but looking closely you see that they're constructed of our every-day refuse that often escapes the trash bin and ends up as a lethal obstacle in the water. It's important to notice that while this plastic material is being repurposed, it's not actually recycled - it was just discarded after (most likely) a single use. Trash used in the art includes plastic bottles, straws, lighters, toothbrushes, flip-flops, ropes, toys and other mostly plastic flotsam and jetsam. The things we don't give a thought to once we are done with them don't go away; they add up. More than 5 tons that was washed up on West Coast beaches was used just in this exhibition for these few sculptures.
The traveling exhibition is an endeavor of the Washed Ashore Project, born in 2010 after artist Angela Haseltine Pozzi witnessed mounds of plastic trash piling up on formerly pristine beaches along her native Oregon coast. She organized all-volunteer cleanups and used the collected trash—washed and sorted—to create massive, realistic sculptures of the sea animals most affected by the pollution.
Since the project began, 10,000 volunteers have removed more than 38,000 pounds of plastic trash—largely single-use plastics—from over 300 miles of beaches. Ninety-five percent of the debris collected has been used in more than 60 sculptures so far. And who knew Americans use an estimated 500 million straws each day?
Though the reality of floating trash is dire, there is whimsy and fun in these sculptures, which is fitting in a wonderous place like the Shedd. My family enjoyed this latest trip, and we have been making extra sure to bring our own water bottles wherever we go.
Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea runs at the Shedd Aquarium through September 2018. A behind-the-scenes video from Washed Ashore is below.
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Photos courtesy Shedd Aquarium