How one small idea turned into a large scale totem pole to raise awareness about ocean pollution.

How a small idea turned into a large scale totem pole to raise awareness about ocean pollution.

Sometimes with a little nourishing, a small idea can grow into something much larger – in this case a nine foot, plastic-covered totem pole.

Each year, students in Tasha Parker’s art classes at Charles Hays Secondary School in Prince Rupert undertake a community project, using art to create dialogue or raise awareness of an issue affecting their school or town. This year, they focused on the issue of marine debris in their coastal community after being approached with the idea of creating some plastic jellyfish for the Vancouver Aquarium’s North Coast Field Office. Not one to think small, Parker took the idea and began to expand its scope.

After learning about the potential impacts of marine debris on local wildlife in class, the students conducted a shoreline clean-up in two locations in Prince Rupert as part of the Great Canadian Shoreline Clean-up. Within two hours, they collected over 110 kilograms (244 pounds) of trash. Among the typical take-out containers, beverage bottles and cigarette butts were some unusual finds such as an entire bed frame, a Nintendo game, and a set of pyjamas.

Vancouver Aquarium shoreline cleanup.

Students made aquatic animals from the garbage they collected.

Instead of sending all the garbage to the recycling depot and dump, some of it was saved, brought back to the school, and cleaned. Using the collected trash the students created a variety of compelling pieces that told the story of debris and marine wildlife: a swarm of plastic jellyfish, sea turtles crocheted out of garbage bags and formed out of a garbage can lid, pop-bottle fish, and a nine foot tall Haida totem pole.

The totem was made as a group project facilitated by Haida artist Jason Watts. It depicts a human figure on the bottom and a killer whale on top. The entire piece is covered in a mosaic of plastic pieces found during the clean-up including bottle caps, drink lids, straws and even a spatula.

“I think the plastic totem pole is an appropriate symbol of the devastation being faced by the ocean upon which our [North Coast] culture has traditionally been dependent on,” explains Parker.

Plastic Ocean

The “Plastic Ocean” exhibit.

The student’s work was displayed as an exhibit entitled “The Plastic Ocean” along with a video and explanation about marine debris during the school’s annual Fine Arts Review attended by all students in the district and many parents. Additionally, the pieces were displayed for the community during Prince Rupert’s Seafest festival in mid-June.

While the art exhibit was already a large undertaking, under Parker’s guidance the project grew even further. With the issue of marine debris fresh in their minds, Parker and her students began looking at the garbage created within their school. They noticed a large amount of to-go hot beverage cups and lids were being thrown out each day.

Vancouver Aquarium Ocean Pollution Impact

Pop bottle fish, just one of the creative displays made by students.

To tackle this potential debris issue, Parker’s desktop publishing class designed and sold stainless steel reusable coffee mugs to encourage their classmates to reduce the amount of garbage they create. The proceeds of the mugs will go towards the Sea Lion Disentanglement program that removes entangling plastic debris from sea lions along the coast of B.C. To maximize their contribution, they also approached the local branch of Northern Savings Credit Union, which donated an additional $2 for every mug sold.

Reflecting on the experience, Parker concludes “I hope we have made an impact on my students so that they may continue the spirit of conservation going forward.”

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