Turning Trash into Something Beautiful: How Artists Richard and Judith Lang Fight Plastic Pollution

 “Judith is absolutely the most generous, open-arms-to-the-world person. But when we’re out on the beach looking for trash, she is ruthless (laughs).

“No, no! That’s not true!”

“She’ll find a beautiful piece of plastic, look back at me, and just wag it in my face!”

Teasing aside, Richard and Judith truly enjoy their fierce competitions to find the “rarest” piece of plastic on the sand. In fact, it’s their way of making up for lost time together.

On their first date in 1999, Richard and Judith discovered something startling: for the last three years, they’d both been combing North Bay beaches for plastic trash, turning their hauls into artwork – without ever crossing paths.

They’ve now spent just under 20 years scouring the same 1,000 yards of Kehoe Beach together. Richard says there’s a good reason why they rival each other to find the most compelling plastic. “One has to make a game of this … or you could fall into a deep pit of despair.”

Indeed, “despair” got them started in this line of work. Judith was teaching art at the College of Marin, and she often ate her lunch on a bench facing Richardson Bay. But she was saddened to find the “lovely view of San Francisco” obscured by “plastic debris that would wash in.” One day, Judith started collecting some of that plastic and turning it into art – her way of transforming waste into something beautiful.

Richard had his “a-ha” moment when he was building a nine-foot sculpture out of aluminum for his M.F.A project at the University of Wisconsin. “At the end of it, I was in great despair because the U.S. had just celebrated the first Earth Day in 1970, and I attended at the National Mall, and I was aware of what was going on in the planet, and I thought: ‘I’m using all these materials — for what?’”

Now, like Save The Bay’s plucky Restoration team, Richard and Judith brave “blazing heat and blistering cold” as they work to raise awareness about plastic pollution in the way they know best. The couple also embodies Save The Bay’s spirit of collaboration, hashing out every idea until they feel strongly about the same vision. Judith admits this can entail a bit of “stomping around the house,” but the end result is well worth a little tension: “we both sign our names on every single piece we make.”

Their teamwork certainly bears fruit: the couple’s artwork has been showcased in more than 70 exhibitions across galleries, museums, and educational centers. During Save The Bay’s Bay Day celebration last year, the Langs donated a big pile of plastic so that people of all ages could try their hand at turning trash into art. Judith and Richard were delighted to hear that: “people took to it immediately – no instruction needed.”

Judith and Richard are always glad to see these scraps transform, as the artists believe deeply: “if you don’t give style to something painful, you’re just going to depress yourself.” Indeed, humor has been the driving force in their work on plastic pollution.

As Judith puts it, “we joke that we’re the world’s smallest NGO and we’re not even that well-organized. We’re just people who’ve devoted their lives to 1,000 yards of beach.”


Youth create mural to celebrate their local watershed

How can art deepen our learning and understanding from a science class and how can it inspire stewardship/connection for our local ecology?

I had the privilege this Spring to facilitate a multimedia mural that engaged an entire student body at a K – 3rd grade elementary school in Petaluma with this question. Further questions followed: Why create art? Why care for our environment and our local species? What are some names of local species? What is the relationship between a butterfly and steelhead trout and why does this matter? And what do these questions have to do with our school??

My hope for the school and students through the creation of this mural: To inspire and create beauty, stewardship and pride for one’s local ecology – the ecology of the elementary school, surrounding community neighborhood, and natural watershed landscape.

The students, teachers, and I explored these questions and answers while collaboratively dreaming up, designing, and creating a multimedia mural that would celebrate the local Petaluma watershed. Choosing this theme was easy, the students were luckily learning about steelhead and environmental stewardship in their classes. Collectively, we realized that the austere and boring 300 foot long chain link fence in front of the entrance of the school desperately needed color, beautification and a welcoming attitude. Materials and mural design came next – surplus factory fabric was collected for weaving strips of color to create the landscape background, donated wood was shaped and cut into steelhead trout, monarch butterflies, and trillium flowers, and paint generously donated by Friedman’s Home Improvement was used to paint these local species.

Weaving the connection between art and ecology

So back to the original question – how can art deepen our understanding and connection with science and the local ecology? Art allowed and demanded that the students engage their classroom and local knowledge of the watershed landscape on creative, physical, and intellectual levels. While weaving, they physically created and felt the motions of a flowing river and the peaks and valleys of the rolling Petaluma hills.

The students had freedom towards how to paint and represent the local species – ranging from very realistic to extraordinarily magically – learning color mixing techniques, observational skills, and pattern recognition. Throughout the project, they worked in pairs and small groups, learning how to successfully work as a team and collaboratively make choices. The students experienced an environmental art project – learning with just a few surplus resources what a team can do to transform a boring fence into beautiful color piece of art. Finally, they transferred classroom knowledge to the outdoors and had fun!

I am grateful that such an art creation can offer such multidimensional learning opportunities for the students and community. The excitement, joy, and intelligence of the students was so influential towards the success of this project. The result? Students finished the mural feeling pride and connection for their school and its beautification, their local watershed and its species, and inspired to further care their place of home.

Creative Ecology

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When I arrived at the at the Creative Ecology program at Cooley Landing, I was greeted by Bay Area textile artist Linda Gass and handed an artist sketchbook and field guide. I was about to engage in a range of science and art activities that would have me seeing near and far.

The activities were intended to make connections between art and science, pointing out that both artists and scientists ask questions, make observations, learn from their senses and record what they see.

A closer look

I started at the science station, where I got the chance to look at water samples that were taken directly from the Bay. A member of the Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo explained that in every drop of Bay water there are hundreds of microorganisms. When I looked at the water samples with a naked eye, all I could see were chunks of mud. Looking under the microscope, I was surprised to see amphipods, nematode worms and diatoms. It was so cool to see these mud creatures up close and to think that they live all over the Bay.

Next I went to the art station where I was handed a magnifying glass to look closely at the mud and rocks that neighbored the shoreline and sketch what I saw. A member of the Palo Alto Art Center told us to look for patterns and to consider lightness and darkness, using lines, dots and crosshatching to create a value scale in our sketches. Using my magnifying glass, I was able to get a better look at the mussels, crabs and pickleweed that lived in the mud at the Bay’s edge.

While we were sketching, we were told to identify what was “manmade” and what was “nature made”. Often that distinction was easy to make. For example I could see that the rocks along the shoreline were nature made, while the bricks intermingled between the rocks were manmade. There were other instances where the line between manmade and nature made was a bit fuzzy. For instance, barnacles covered large pieces of wire that lay over some of the rocks.

Art meets science

When we arrived at the third station, we were each given a viewfinder and were told to identify the horizon through our viewfinder. We were instructed to use our viewfinders to pick out a certain section of the landscape that we wanted to draw and begin sketching. Looking far, we strived to clearly outline the foreground, middle ground and background in our drawings.

I saw a fin peaking up above the water. I soon realized that this was a leopard shark and that there were tons of leopard sharks swimming around the Bay waters that surrounded us. I probably saw at least 6 leopard sharks that day, many of which came right to the edge of the water, giving us a view of all three of their fins.

As I looked out on the Bay and began sketching, I was struck by the intricate patterns that the ripples made in the water. I often found myself straying away from my drawing and observing the nearby leopard sharks instead. As I looked around at the landscape, I was able to see the Palo Alto Baylands to the South, one of the many sites along the Bay where we engage in restoration.

Cooley Landing

As I took in my surroundings, looking near and far, I tried to imagine what Cooley Landing used to look like before it was cleaned up and restored. The site was originally home to the Muwekma Ohlone tribe, who utilized the space for fishing. It was later transformed into a pier for ships to transport building materials to San Francisco. Between the 1930’s and 1960, Cooley Landing was used as a garbage dump where toxic trash was dumped directly into Bay.

In 2012, EPA and the Regional Water Quality Control Board partnered up to design and fund the site’s cleanup, filling in the Bay and sealing off soil contaminated with mercury, arsenic, PCB’s, lead, and other toxic chemicals.  Additional partners such as the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District contributed land and biological expertise to plant native vegetation to enhance the wildlife habitat for the nearby endangered Ridgeway’s rail and salt marsh harvest mouse.

The former garbage dump is now home to thriving native vegetation. Cooley Landing is now part of the Bay Trail, adding nine acres of public open space in East Palo Alto.

The Creative Ecology program brings people of all ages out to open space preserves like Cooley Landing and gets them interacting directly with the Bay. While out on the program, I watched kids become immersed in the art and science activities they were doing, using their imaginations to picture what the space may have looked like years ago and asking questions about the mud creatures that they saw. I watched longtime Bay residents enjoying the space for the first time, seeking more information about the site’s history and restoration.

Save The Bay’s own educational materials were used to answer questions and provide context. I was proud to tell program participants that I was a part of the Save The Bay team. As we looked at historical Bay maps, we identified parts of the Bay that had been converted to salt ponds, filled, or developed.  When Linda asked which parts of the Bay were still neighbored by wetlands, I responded “not enough”. She smiled and informed the group that I was a part of Save The Bay.

Marking Historic Shoreline

Linda showed us historical maps of Cooley Landing overlaid on top of Google maps. Looking at historic maps of the site from 1857 and comparing those to current maps, it was evident that a lot of the Bay had been filled and a significant portion of the marsh was gone. Linda explained that she was working on a land art installation project in order to illustrate how the landscape has changed overtime and what we have lost.

Linda invited us to help her with the project, explaining that it was a community-based effort. She told us that we would be using blue survey whiskers to mark the historic shoreline of Cooley Landing, explaining that the space in front of the blue whiskers represented historic Bay water and the space behind the blue whiskers represented historic wetlands. Linda said that with each program, the art installation grows in size, further documenting the historic shoreline.

We were each given a handful of blue whiskers and were instructed to place them however we wished, using the orange tape that was already in place as a guideline. As I began sticking the whiskers into the ground I started chatting with the couple next to me. They explained that they were avid readers of the Bay Monthly, Save The Bay’s monthly newsletter, and asked more about my work as an office volunteer. I was happy to share my experiences with them and hear that they were curious about the work we are doing.

After attending Linda’s field program, I got a better idea of how other groups and organizations are working with the San Francisco Bay and how art and science can be applied to inspire and educate Bay stewards of all ages. Read more about the art and activism Linda Gass here.


Environmental Activism Through Art

Linda Gass is a textile artist. Her work blends painting and textile techniques to create multi-layered birds-eye view landscapes and maps showing the human marks that affect our water resources.

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When did you become interested in creating art about San Francisco Bay?

Whenever I flew over the Bay I would look down and wonder what are those wild colors and why are they there? In 2005 I was at a point where I was able to research it and learn more about it and then I wanted to make art about it.

What inspires you and why you are so drawn to the San Francisco Bay?

I make art about things that I am familiar with and know something about and because I live here that’s really what inspires me. It’s my backyard. It’s something I care very deeply about.

Many of your stitched paintings deal with land use concerns. How do you see your work connecting with advocacy efforts for a healthy San Francisco Bay?

I’m drawn to the human mark on the landscape. I’m interested in how those human marks affect our water resources. My Land Use Series came out of a talk I went to by the poet Gary Snyder. He posed this quiz to the audience called “How Local Are You?”, which asked questions like “do you know where your water comes from? Do you know where it goes when you’re done with it? Can you name 5 native grasses?”

Although I thought I knew the answer to these questions, when I fully tried to answer them I wasn’t quite sure and so that inspired me to research where my water goes when I’m done with it, where my garbage goes and where my gasoline gets refined. When I looked at all three of those, they were located right on the edge of the Bay, which made me wonder, is this a good site for these activities to be occurring?

Why is it important to consider how landscapes have changed over time and how do you illustrate these changes in your work?

I’m interested in the present day landscape. I’m also interested in how it used to look and I’m interested in how it could look in the future. I draw on historical photographs and maps to understand what the landscape used to look like. Looking at these maps and photographs could give us a clue of what those landscapes could look like in the future through restoration efforts.

How do you think that art can greater connect people to their local environment and aid in education about environmental issues?

I feel like art has great potential to touch people emotionally and in ways that maybe scientific facts don’t. Art can also be a gentle way to encourage people to become interested in something that could be a difficult topic. I try to encourage people to look at things in our environment that we have great potential to repair and restore. I use bright colors and textiles and I make my work beautiful to encourage people to look at it and then if they want to they can learn the story behind it. I’m trying to use beauty to encourage people to look at the hard issues that we face.

Why are you so drawn to the birds-eye/aerial view of landscapes?

The aerial perspective is just one that I particularly love. I don’t know if I was a bird in a past life but I love that view of the land and it’s also that view that enables me to see the patterns of our human marks.

Do you have any upcoming projects that our readers might be interested in learning about?

I was awarded an art and science residency with the Palo Alto Art Center and Junior Museum & Zoo. It’s a 5 month long residency called Creative Ecology. There are four artists who received the award and we will be doing our work sequentially.

There are three parts to the residency: the first part is spending a month exploring an open space area in or near Palo Alto with the community and an art educator from the Art Center and a science educator from Junior Musuem and Zoo. I chose Cooley Landing in East Palo Alto.

We’re going to explore Cooley Landing over three consecutive Saturdays. The public is welcome to join us at Cooley Landing July 11th, 18th and 25th from 10 am – noon. We’re also doing scheduled sessions during the week with youth groups. We’ll be doing art and science activities, looking very closely at the environment, using magnifying glasses and binoculars, and drawing and writing about what we see. We will examine water samples from the Bay using microscopes to see the different organisms living in the water. We will be making connections between art and science.

The second part of the residency is to make artwork based on the experience at Cooley Landing. I’ll have open studio hours at the Palo Alto Art Center where the public can drop in and observe me making my work. I’m hoping to also have set up a way for the public to make their own small silk paintings about Cooley Landing and hopefully that would then get turned into a community quilt. The third part of the residency is an exhibition of the work that I’ve created.

Linda Gass combines environmental activism and artmaking to bring awareness to land use and water issues in California.  She travels extensively in the wilderness areas of the West where she finds much of the inspiration for her work.  Linda exhibits her work internationally in museums and galleries and her art has been featured in a wide variety of books and magazines. To learn more about Linda, visit her website www.lindagass.com.

Bay Bridge Lights it Up

The Bay Lights
The Bay Lights reflect on San Francisco Bay. Photo: Warzau Wynn

Although I missed Tuesday night’s unveiling of the The Bay Lights on the Bay Bridge, it’s incredibly exciting to have such large-scale and public art visible along the Bay shoreline.  Over the next two years, an estimated 50 million people will gaze at the nightly twinkling of 25,000 LED lights, their reflection on the cool Bay waters, and how they cast an eerie glow on the fog rolling down from Twin Peaks. This kind of simple public interaction with the Bay and local landmarks is right up our alley with For The Bay.

As you’ve probably heard, For The Bay is a new initiative for us here at Save The Bay.  It’s all about providing new opportunities for Bay Area residents with ways to interact with, learn from, and explore the myriad of ways that a clean and healthy San Francisco Bay makes the region such a special place to live, work, and raise a family.

We know that 9 in 10 people in our communities think the Bay is critical to our quality of life, but only a small fraction of them ever take action to support the Bay and Bay issues.  And while events like the new Bay Bridge lights are a small first step, we’re working hard to identify as many other ways that we can engage Bay Area residents around our most magnificent resource – the Bay!

So we’ve got a question for you:  what are your favorite ways to interact with the Bay?