By Betsy Cohen
17 October 2013
(Missoulian) – In the dark theater, on a dimly lit stage, a 32-foot-long gray whale made of plastic bags looked so lifelike, it seemed to be gliding through the depths of the ocean.
As visitors came to see the one-day exhibit of “The Plastic Whale Project,” the iconic shape and colossal size of the subject prompted the same reaction – no matter what their age.
“When I walked in and saw it I went, ‘Whoa – that’s pretty life-size scale,’ ” said 10-year-old Liam Queneau, who visited the unusual art piece that took center stage at the University of Montana’s Dennison Theatre on Thursday afternoon.
“And then I said, ‘Wow.’ ”
Made from more than 9,000 plastic bags and created by 900 children and adults in Thurston County, Washington, the sculpture was originally part of an outreach program to engage the public in understanding plastics in our environment, explained Carrie Ziegler.
Ziegler spearheaded the project during her professional work with Thurston County Solid Waste, and brought it to completion with her vision and her after-hours life as a studio painter, muralist and sculptor.
“As an artist, it was a logical step for me to incorporate art and creativity into the educational program,” Ziegler said during a rare quiet moment when a viewer wasn’t asking her about the dramatic whale.
“When I thought about how to educate people about plastics in our environment and to reduce the use of plastic bags, I wanted something a lot of different people could be involved with,” she said. “Then I learned about trash in our oceans – and the Gyre.”
What is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – or Gyre – is a vortex of human debris, mostly plastic, that collects where currents collide in the central North Pacific.
“It’s more like a garbage soup, where the top 30 meters of ocean is filled with plastics that don’t biodegrade,” Ziegler said. “In size, it’s about as big as two states of Texas.”
With the awful reality of the gyre fresh in her mind, she remembered the story of a gray whale that washed up on a Thurston County beach in 2010.
When biologists did a necropsy on the whale, they found in its stomach a host of disturbing non-biodegradable items, including more than 30 plastic bags, tennis balls and a pair of sweatpants. [more]