Found Objects

Two artists turn trash into treasures at Point Reyes National Seashore.


By Amy Leinbach Marquis


Watch a short, inspiring video that reveals Judith and Richard’s creative process for turning trash into art at Point Reyes National Seashore.

It’s spring of 1996 in Point Reyes National Seashore, California. Richard Lang and his 14-year-old son, Eli, are removing invasive plants for a volunteer project when they take a lunch break at Kehoe Beach—a spot they love for its spectacular wildflowers. But that day, something else dominates the landscape: plastic. A lot of plastic. In all shapes, sizes, and colors: weathered shards, bottles and caps, ropes and netting, even car bumpers. Washing in with the tide and trashing the beach. Richard and Eli are disgusted and can’t shake the image from their minds.

They returned the following week on a mission and ended up hauling out seven huge garbage bags full of trash. “We were going to throw them away at the dump, but then it occurred to us that ‘away’ was some mythical land that doesn’t exist,” Richard says. Instead, they started sorting through the plastic and separating items by color. And that’s when the problem began to shift: This wasn’t trash—it was art material. And that was a handy thing, as Richard happened to be a professional sculptor.

The very same spring, an artist named Judith Selby was picnicking regularly at a park on Richardson’s Bay near San Francisco. While she was eating, she’d notice brightly colored bits of plastic along the shore. “I’m always looking for art materials, especially free art materials, so I started gathering them and making small sculptural pieces,” she says.

But Judith and Richard wouldn’t meet for three more years, when she walked into Richard’s fine-art printing store in San Francisco to get an estimate for a project she was working on. They were drawn to each other immediately, and it took just one date—which included a stroll along Point Reyes’ seashore—to make the art connection.

“We were walking on the beach, and Judith picked up a piece of plastic, and I asked, ‘Are you going to keep that?’” Richard says.

“And I said, ‘Wait a second, you just picked up a piece of plastic too—are you going to keep that?’” Judith adds. “What are the chances of finding somebody else who likes to pick up plastic and make artwork out it? It was just too extraordinary.”

They began collaborating on art projects right away, and four years later, they got married. In 2001 the park’s main visitor center and another local gallery housed their first exhibit: “One Beach, One Year,” a year’s worth of plastic found on Point Reyes’ Kehoe Beach. The couple did more than simply hang colorful images on walls; they led the public on guided trips to the beach to gather even more plastic, then provided a “creation station” outside the exhibit where people could make something of their shoreline debris. It was the beginning of a beautiful trend. Long after the exhibit came down (and their artwork moved on to places as esteemed as San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Café Museo and Artist’s Gallery Windows), Judith and Richard continued to run into beachgoers collecting plastic in Point Reyes.

“It really had a direct impact on people,” says Loretta Farley, an interpretive ranger at the national seashore, “much more so than a pile of trash or signs saying ‘Don’t Litter.’” It was also a wake-up call, she adds, for those who weren’t aware of the effort that goes into keeping park landscapes pristine. “When you visit the park and you’re immersed in this natural environment, you don’t necessarily realize the human labor that’s involved. It’s the behind-the-scenes story of national parks—people like Judith and Richard who are out there cleaning beaches and clearing trails. They’re not just looking to a government agency to solve a problem; they’ve taken ownership, and they’re stepping up to work with the Park Service and create a solution.”

But should they really be turning such an ugly problem into something so appealing?

“It’s not conflict-free in our minds,” Judith says. “People chide us all the time for making it look so beautiful. But we want to make it beautiful so people participate.”

“We don’t want to talk to the ‘arrived and the anointed,’” Richard adds. “We want to talk to people who don’t understand it, who are not environmentally aware.”

And sure enough, the Langs are engaging a broad scope of people all over the Bay area. “There’s this wonderful dance that happens when people look at our displays,” Judith says. “They’ll be intrigued and will move forward and look at the artwork, and sometimes they’ll recoil and say, ‘Eww, what is that?’ and then they’ll move forward again. Often they’ll say, ‘Wow, I used to have one of those.’” And that sparks the personal connection—and ultimately, the personal sense of responsibility—that the Langs hope to trigger.

“Plastic is an amazing, wonderful material. My own father had a plastic aorta replacement in his heart that extended his life for some time,” Judith says. “If we’re against anything, it’s the indiscriminate ‘use it and toss it’ plastic—the plastic bags, the single-use water bottles, the plastic spoons at the ice cream shop—these things that we use for a split second, then toss away.

“Point Reyes National Seashore was once slated for development; there could have been mega-mansions all along the coast. But there were people who said, ‘No, we have to make this a national park.’ Richard and I are grateful to them, and we feel a responsibility to honor their legacy by keeping the place tidy, by doing our little bit of planetary housekeeping. We’re just two people cleaning 1,000 yards of one beach. If everyone would take on one little part of a national park—whether it’s restoring habitat or cleaning the watershed or whatever moves them—we would all be better for it.”

The Langs’ next exhibit premiers this July at the San Francisco Public Library’s main branch and Switzerland’s Design Museum in Zürich. For more about their work, visit www.beachplastic.com.

 Watch a short, inspiring video that reveals Judith and Richard’s creative process for turning trash into art at Point Reyes National Seashore:

Amy Leinbach Marquis is associate editor of National Parks Magazine.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

Eco Arts Awards

January 6, 2013

We would like to invite judith and Richard and any other artists who are using found objects to enter our 2nd annual Eco Arts Awards competition. The honorable Lloyd Herman named one of our categories: Repurposed Materials in Art & Design. Our deadline will be the end of this month, Jan. 2013. www.ecoartawards.com

Lynnmuz

December 27, 2012

I have a collection of found object art from the beaches along the Long Island Sound in the Bronx. I use driftwood and glue on pieces to make my art. It was fun to see how they categhorize their bits and pieces, gets tricky! And I was really wondering if they clean the plastic, looks s bright and shiny...

Michael Hanrahan

December 3, 2012

An article about Judith and Richard's exhibit The Ghost Below, which just opened at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, CA. http://millvalley.patch.com/blog_posts/the-ghost-below-exhibit-focuses-a-light-on-ocean-trash#photo-12424723

Marilyn

August 28, 2012

What a wonderful way for two people to meet and have the same ideas in their imagination. I have a six yr. old great granddaughter who has a wonderful imagination for art. She can look at something, even a line of a pencil or crayon and turn it into many shapes. I hope someday she will be as creative as you both are. Judith and Richard you are both gifts from God and you have taught so many people that trash is always someone Else's treasures. Thank you for sharing your gifts of imagination with the world. I wondered if Richards son has some of your talent?

Suzanna

August 18, 2012

My primary purpose in designing and making jewelry is to “upcycle” found objects in such a way as to create pieces that evoke meaning and joy. I have used vintage postage stamps, old keys, watch faces, hymnals and drawer pulls in my work among many other things so they won't be thrown out and be buried in a landfill. It's really nice to see an English teacher's face light up when she finds a necklace made with a calligraphy pen nib and it warms my heart when a customer's face softens after I hand over their grandmother's jewelry remade for them to wear. Suzanna McMahan suzannamcmahan.com

GEEONE

July 16, 2012

WHY NOT HAVE THE LANGS ENLIST AN ARMY OF PEOPLE TO COLLECT PLASTIC AND GLASS ALONG THE WAYS AND CREATE AN ARTISTS RECYCLE CENTER ,ENLIST THEM AS INTERNS FOR A GREATER BODY OF WORK AND SOLICITE THEM TO HELP CLEAN UP THE AREAS THEY ARE LOCAL TO.

DMM

July 14, 2012

Bravo Judith and Richard! What a great surprise to get my NPCA magazine and see your work on the cover, and the article within. And now this great little video. Lovely to see you this summer too -- much too briefly, as always!

Latuna7

July 8, 2012

The Langs reinforce the idea that beauty can be found in the most unlikely of shapes, forms and places. One only has to open their eyes to appreciate it's message.

barnickel

July 7, 2012

This floored me, Just saw this and was amazed at what can be done independent of others work and have like-minded statements. The treatments may be different but the subject-matter and concept identical. I've been using this in same flotsam in my own work. Evokes Jungian collective thinking about expressions upon the time and places in which we live.

Aunt Betty

July 5, 2012

What a lovely concept! This was an amazing and inspiring article and video. What wonderful people to have this vision and share the possibilities of the re-use of what some may call trash. My Depression era Mother instilled in us to not throw away anything that could be reused. She reminded us how her family saved tin foil, twine, and camera light bulbs which they painted with Russian folk designs and used as Christmas tree ornaments. Thank you for these memories. What a wonderful refresher and reminder to open one's eyes and envision the possibilities of all that surrounds us.

Bobolinker

July 5, 2012

The Langs work is beautiful. There are other artists who use beach debris to create art of greater dimensions, also making a statement about pollution. A house in Berkeley, CA has its front yard filled with the owner's creations; what is stunning is the size and quantity of the debris they have salvaged. Here's a video of their front yard taken on an iPhone: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EjZfm4GtEhI Here's an article that tells more about the artist: http://www.berkeleyside.com/2010/08/11/on-colusa-avenue-beach-debris-folk-art-with-a-twist/ Interestingly, the concept has spread in the neighborhood and pieces of debris art can now be found in the front yards of many homes. I don't know if they are from the same artist, or whether he has merely served as the inspiration.

Anonymous

July 5, 2012

Thank you for the inspiration

Marie

July 5, 2012

This is such an inspirational story!!! The Lang's are an awesome couple to work on cleaning up Kehoe Beach and make something beautiful out of the trash! Thank you for this story! Marie Takada

RK

July 2, 2012

Amazing article in magazine and this video only adds more as you see the amount of plastic they find on one small beach. The Langs are fun couple and their passion for making a difference is inspiring.

Sduggan52

June 23, 2012

WoW..that is all I can say...They are such an inspiration and so talented..And such great educators... We need to wake up World !!!

Anonymous

June 21, 2012

THANK YOU for this video and the article in your magazine--very inspiring on many levels. Please keep up your art related articles...we really enjoyed the art from the Japanese internments camps too!

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