To most people a toilet seat, plastic barrels and the broken underbelly of a boat may be considered trash, but to artist Linda Oldenburg, it is a canvas for fine art.
Oldenburg, a teacher at Citrus Grove Elementary in Little Havana and an ardent kayaker, noticed over the years how garbage was increasingly showing up in the waterways and along the shoreline of Biscayne National Park. Plastic, glass and shoes were the most common items, along with occasional refrigerator doors, shipping pallets, fishing trawls and abandoned boats.
She decided to do something about this, recycling the marine trash into canvases for her art.
An exhibit of 24 of her pieces is on display at the Dante Fascell Visitor Gallery at Biscayne National Park in south Miami-Dade. An artist’s reception will be from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday at the gallery. The exhibit is called “Upcycled: Canvases from the Sea.”
“The name of the show is ‘upcycled,’ which I think really fits it well because it’s turning something that was discarded into something else versus recycling it,” said Oldenburg, 50. “So taking something that was tossed out and turning it into something that you would want to hang on your wall.”
One particularly large piece is a plastic barrel that has been sawed open to show a painting of two birds resting on the top of a mangrove tree. She found the barrel in Jones Lagoon.
Oldenburg uses acrylic paint and pastels in hues of baby blues, seaweed greens, grays and browns to paint the the rectified three-dimensional garbage that she, park staff and volunteers have found. She paints images of mangroves, birds, water and the park’s lighthouse on the objects.
“I think it’s really important to bring awareness of the environmental impact of marine debris, so painting on it seemed like a good thing to both display my art and show what kind of marine debris could be found in the park,” said Oldenburg.
She said the idea behind the show came from a project where artists around the world painted on hubcaps, which immediately grabbed Biscayne National Park ranger Gary Bremen’s attention as a potential exhibition idea that could cross-pollinate art with helping the environment.
“It’s a really neat way for us to bring a park issue, a critical park issue, to a group of people that might not normally be aware of it,” said Bremen. “And that’s the whole idea behind the gallery.”
Oldenburg and Bremen say there’s a lot of debris in the park — some of it isn’t even identifiable anymore.
“We have shipping lanes not very far off shore and, despite international laws that say you can’t dump plastic at sea, people do it all the time,” said Bremen. “I have an insole from a show with turtle bites in it where you can see the turtle confused it for some kind of floating thing, probably a Portuguese man-o-war, and took diamond shape chunks out of it and swallowed it.”
Bremen called the marine debris a “never-ending problem” and cites multiple sources, including ocean dumping offshore as the root of the global issue.
According to Vanessa McDonough, the Biscayne National Park fishery and wildlife biologist, between 400-600 pounds of marine trash is not an unusual haul from the coastline peppering Elliott Key, which is less than a mile long.
But in the last few years, a non-profit organization called the Coastal Cleanup Corp. has started to tackle the problem of the garbage, which covers the shorelines and dangerously entangles the animals.
George and Suzanne Pappas, directors of the CCC, have recruited hundreds of volunteers to clean up the park’s islands. In just the last two years, more than 52 separate clean-ups have brought over 12 tons of plastic and debris out of the area.
“I think it’s wonderful she went out to go explore and became aware of a problem that we have,” said Suzanne Pappas about Oldenburg. “She’s hoping to get the message out that we do have this problem.”
Pappas’ hope is that the community will identify with Oldenburg’s artwork and want to become “environmental stewards” in helping solve the problem in their own backyards.
The exhibit is part of the park's Community Artists Program, started in 1997 as an outlet for the works of artists who are inspired by the beauty of Biscayne National Park.
If you go
On Sunday, the public is invited to a “meet the artist” free reception from 1-3 p.m at the gallery. The opening will also include a presentation to the Coastal Cleanup Corp., which in 2013 was the National Park Service’s Hartzog Award for Outstanding Volunteer Group.