ITHACA, N.Y. —Looking out at Cayuga Lake, it might be hard to believe just how much trash can be found along the shore. Shopping carts, plastic bags and food wrappers are some of the things community members have dredged out in cleanups. Now, to illuminate the issue, some people have turned the collected trash into art.
The Cayuga Watershed Network, the Community School of Music and Arts and the Glorious Trash Birds have collaborated to create “Strewn, Forgotten, Gathered, ReImagined,” an art exhibit created with trash collected mainly from Cayuga Lake and local parks and waterways. The show will run until July 26 at the CSMA.
The idea for the show developed naturally, Paul Closs, one of the organizers of the show, said. He started a Facebook page two years ago called “The Glorious Trash Birds,” where avid trash collectors can organize events to clean up the waterways and some parks in the local area.
“In the group, there were a few artists,” Closs said. “They were already making projects out of some of the stuff they found and so we were kind of like, you know, we should have an exhibit someday and put these works on display.”
Many of the artists are members of boating clubs, like the Ithaca Dragon Boat Club, stand-up paddling group and the Cayuga outrigger canoe club. Picking up trash is part of taking care of their home court, Closs said.
“It’s basically our home,” he said. “We’re out there all the time, and we don’t like to see trash out there while we’re having a good time. We were like, we should get together and do a cleanup. … So it’s really grown out of the heart of this local area paddling groups.”
The Glorious Trash Birds have picked up some unusual objects in the parks and the lake. Closs said he once found a bag full of wind-up penguin toys. He also said the group found a mannequin head washed up on the shore, which became the header for the art exhibit. Even though there’s an overwhelming amount of litter, sometimes, Byrne said, trash collection has its positives.
“Once you do it, it’s so fun!” Byrne said. “I mean, you find weird things and you make up weird stories, like ‘what happened here last night?’”
The Glorious Trash Birds work with the Cayuga Watershed Network to pick up trash along the inlet and the watershed areas. The Network, according to the program’s executive director Hilary Lambert, was created to be a central place for information about Cayuga Lake, where people could find data, studies and research focusing on the lake’s health. Among many manners of outreach, the Network provides those interested in trash cleanups with resources.
“If anybody wants to do a cleanup next spring, the Cayuga Watershed Network will provide them with everything they need for free,” Lambert said.
After gathering trash during a cleanup event, Closs said, the artists of the group created projects out of their finds. One of the artists, Caroline Byrne, asked Robin Tropper-Herbal, the director of the Community School of Music and Arts and a fellow member of the Glorious Trash Birds Facebook page, if the artists could use the CSMA space to hold an exhibit, Lambert said.
“It’s not just stuff people throw on the ground,” she said. “It’s all the stuff that makes up our lives. That’s what I thought was appealing about it.”
One artist, Nancy Malina, said using trash as art material was a matter of finding value in the garbage.
“It’s worth my time and effort to pick up trash,” Malina said. “If I can’t recycle it and it inspires me to create something beautiful or that allows people to see things in a new way, then it’s valuable to the community.”
Malina created a diorama of a forest using straws, old earbuds and Styrofoam. She also used a piece of old piping as the main structure of a four-foot-tall sculpture titled, “Blossom.”
The exhibit highlights the overwhelming amount of litter scattered along the shores and grounds surrounding Cayuga Lake. The specific details about the litter — how much, where it’s from, its contents and its effects — are currently unknown as there hasn’t been research on the topic, Lambert said.
The only people who really know about the litter are those who collect it. Malina said her diorama was inspired by how many straws she saw on the ground. Other commonly found objects include plastics bags, cups and food wrappers, Lambert said.
For the Trash Birds, plastic bags and other discarded plastics in the lake are easy to spot and remove, if time consuming, but another pollutant that’s less noticeable from the shore is microplastics — bits of plastic that are five millimeters or smaller. These microplastics can sneak through water filtration and are not easily cleaned up, Lambert said.
Microplastics come cosmetic products and from larger plastics breaking down. While microplastics and their effects are still being researched, picking up trash before it can break down is one way to cut down on the plastic pollution in the lake.
The art exhibit will hopefully inspire others to take care of their lake and local community, Malina said.
“The lake is a gift,” Malina said. “It’s something we should cherish and take care of. Nobody is going to take care of it except for you.”
The show will run until July 26 at the Community School of Music and Arts, which is located at 330 E. State St. The exhibit is free and open to the public.
Featured image: “Blossom” by Nancy Corwin Malina. (Becky Mehorter/The Ithaca Voice)