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Fine art from beach trash

What this Port Townsend artist does with what she finds on the shore is both beautiful - and disturbing

PORT TOWNSEND, Wash. — On the shore of Discovery Bay near Port Townsend, a tall brown-haired woman scours the beach, looking for trash. It looks like she’s picking up litter, and she is. But this is also something else.

Gathering garbage is the first step in artist Karen Hackenberg's creative process.

"Even though it looks kind of ugly, sometimes I get inspired by the smallest, weirdest things. There's a plastic bottle, okay, there ya go!” said Hackenberg, showing of the dirty plastic containers and crumbling styrofoam chunks she’s pulled off the beach during this outing. 

A plastic laundry detergent bottle sits on the table in her studio. The piece of garbage that started it all:

"And it struck me there was a red tide, it was low tide, and I found a bottle that was bright orange that said Tide on it. And it just sort of got my goat and triggered my sense of humor and irony.  And I posed it smack dab in the middle of the seascape and photographed it so it looked monolithic.” She made a painting from the photograph. She called it Red Tide.

After that, she couldn't go to the beach without seeing all that junk - as a bad joke.

"It was almost like a free-for-all, every time I went down there I'd see something ridiculous, like a yogurt container that said Olympic Organic!” Hackenberg exclaimed, “I mean, it's plastic!"

She photographs what she finds – then paints it in oils and gouache.

Man-made junk meets mother nature: A seascape of water bottles labeled ‘Laughing Whale Springwater’ is called 'Orca Pod'. And you don’t know whether you should laugh or cry at that.

Credit: Karen Hackenberg
Orca Pod by Karen Hackenberg

“I see a lot of the objects in some of my paintings as what would, in some fantasy life or world would maybe evolve to exist instead of the wildlife we're killing,” said Hackenberg.

A plastic party ice bag with a polar bear lounging in a big ice cube is named for the graphic on the ice cube: 'Have an Ice Day'. The polar bear is sporting sunglasses. Hackenberg paints ‘em like she sees them. Because you can’t make this stuff up.

“In a way I think humor helps people engage, draws them in, kinda coerces them. But I also like to paint things beautifully, and I use the beauty of the trash to kind of make people say what's that? Oh, it's trash.”

Credit: Karen Hackenberg
The Floating World by Karen Hackenberg

In Hackenberg's work - garbage is a life form all its own. A bunch of green soda bottles form ‘a reptilian plastic creature of the future, made of plastic bottles and emerging from the ocean, along the lines of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.”

Hackenberg's art is upcycling with a message:

“We've turned into a culture where we don't value anything. One plastic bottle is actually kind of exquisite, but millions of them overtaking nature and killing off wildlife, is not a good idea.”

She just hopes we get her bright - yet dark messages. Before it's too late.

Find Hackenberg's work on the artist's website, and at the Patricia Rovzar Gallery 

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