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When Art Speaks: An Interview with Kelly Crull

Kelly Crull is the author and photographer behind the nonfiction picture book, Washed Ashore: Making Art from Ocean Plastic published on March 1, 2022 by Millbrook Press. Crull is also the author of Becoming Dad, Clara Has a Baby Brother and Don’t Cry, Baby. Originally from the windswept prairies of Iowa, Kelly now lives with his wife and three children in the coastal region of Asturias, Spain.

Washed Ashore, a Junior Library Guild Selection, is a picture book that manages to tackle the topic of Ocean Plastics while still leaving young readers with a sense of hope and empowerment. I wrote a longer review about its merits and potential to fit into school curriculum (hello art teachers looking to incorporate STEAM!) here, but I also wanted to have a conversation with Kelly about his work because I am interested in the idea of art powerful enough to inspire more art and, perhaps of utmost importance, actual change.

Art has a way of opening our eyes to big issues and engaging us in a way that a news story or public service announcement might not. Tell us about your initial experience with the Washed Ashore exhibit and how that inspired you to do more.

Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea is a community arts project based in Bandon, Oregon. Volunteers and staff collect plastic from local beaches and use that plastic to build giant sculptures of iconic marine animals like sharks, whales, polar bears, penguins, etc. Since 2010, they have made over 80 sculptures, and their sculptures have been seen by more than 21 million people at zoos and aquariums across the US and Canada.

People who have seen the Washed Ashore exhibit often describe this moment when they first see one of the marine animal sculptures. The sculptures are so big and beautiful that most people walk over to take a closer look. But there's this specific moment when you are walking towards the sculpture that you stop and say, "Whoa, what's going on here? What's this sculpture made out of?" And that's when it hits you...this beautiful sculpture is made out of trash! It's beautiful and ugly at the same time. Angela, the founder of the Washed Ashore Project, says people often cry when they first see a Washed Ashore sculpture because of how shocking it is to see the effects of our plastic waste on marine animals.

Pricilla, the Parrotfish at Como Park Zoo in St. Paul, MN (Image Credit: Kelly Crull)

I had this same experience with my kids when we visited the Como Park Zoo in St. Paul, Minnesota. We came across Priscilla, the Parrotfish. My kids started pointing out all of the different plastic items in the sculpture that we use regularly, and they asked me if any of the plastic in the sculpture was from our home. And I realized I had no idea. So it was really my kids' curiosity that led me to write the book.

Tell us a little bit about the artist, Angela Haseltine Pozzi whose work and environmental movement you are writing about in Washed Ashore.

Angela is an artist and an educator. She loves to take walks along the beach near her home in Bandon, Oregon. She collects shells, driftwood, and other interesting things that wash up on the beach, and she makes art out of them. One day she picked up what she thought was a small bone, but something didn't feel quite right about it. She turned it over, and it had writing on the other side. That's when she realized it wasn't a bone but a piece of plastic that had been in the ocean so long that it had started to look like a bone.

Angela began to find more pieces of plastic washing up on the beach, and that's when she had a big idea. She thought, "What if I collect all of this plastic, and I use it as free art supplies to make sculptures of marine animals so big and so beautiful that people will come from far away to see them, and I can teach them about the problem of ocean plastic?" And that's exactly what she did.

To date over 10,000 volunteers have spent 14,000 hours processing more than 39,000 pounds of marine debris. 80% of the marine debris is plastic, and 95% of that plastic is used to make artwork. Together they have created over 80 marine animal sculptures that have been seen by more than 21 million people at zoos and aquariums across the US and Canada.

Kelly Crull/Millbrook Press

The sculptures themselves are quite large. Were there any challenges you found to capturing the artwork with a camera, knowing they would be printed on a much smaller scale?

The advantage of taking photos of sculptures is that they sit still. I could take as much time as I needed to get the right shot without worrying about the sculptures getting bored or fidgety. On the other hand, the sculptures are very large. Some of them are over 13 feet (4m) tall and very long. And they're not easy to move.

Steve, the Weedy Sea Dragon, for example, is 16 feet (4.5m) long. There wasn't very much light in the building where the sculpture was located, so I had to get creative. Like most photographers, my lighting equipment is made for taking portraits of people, not giants, so I actually had to light each section of the sculpture, take a photo, and stitch them together afterwards in Photoshop.

Also, the plastic items in the sculptures are easy to pick out in real life but not as easy to see in the book. I spent a lot of time looking for items in each sculpture that were big enough to actually search for and find.

Did you have a favorite sculpture?

That is such a hard question! There are so many great sculptures to choose from. Like I said, the Washed Ashore Project has made over 80 sculptures, and they're always making new ones. But I guess if I had to choose, I would pick Priscilla the Parrotfish. The sculpture is really big and colorful—it looks like a rainbow. It's fun to walk around the sculpture and look at all the different sand toys they used to make her.

Also, I feel a special connection to Priscilla because she was the first Washed Ashore sculpture I saw at the zoo. I wanted to honor her, so she is the first sculpture readers see in the book.

Kelly Crull/Millbrook Press

One of the things I love about this book is that it has the brilliant addition of a Where’s Waldo/I Spy component to it that adds a very engaging experience to a straight nonfiction book. Did you like those kind of books growing up?

I loved Where's Waldo when I was a kid! I didn't discover the I Spy books until I had my own kids, and we loved those books too. I included the seek-and-find component of the book because I figured, hey, kids ask big questions. They don't shy away from difficult subjects like plastic pollution. But, I don't see why we can't have a little fun too while we're wrestling with a tough challenge like ocean plastic.

You bring an interesting perspective to the topic of ocean plastics as an American living abroad. While it is certainly a global issue, have you noticed a difference in attitudes toward consumerism when you compare your experience in North America to your life in Europe?

Oh, definitely. Don't get me wrong, consumption is alive and well in Europe too, but in the US, consumption is involved in all aspects of life. Consumption is such an important part of the way we live that it's almost impossible to see it unless you spend some time in another culture that has a different approach to life. When I moved to Spain almost twenty years ago, I noticed immediately that something was different. Most Spaniards didn't snack, for instance. They only ate at meal times. When I would offer them food between meals or during a meeting or I would bring a snack to eat on the train, they would look at me strange.

The equivalent of the "American dream" in Spain is to have a stable job that covers your expenses and gives you time to enjoy your family and friends. Relationships are the priority. In my case, I've always wanted more than I have. Sad, but true.

I also grew up with the mentality that I had to spend money to have fun. We would go to the mall or out to eat or to a movie. Even my school was constantly selling merchandise, which is a completely foreign concept in the places where I've lived in Spain. People do spend money to have fun in Europe too, but my friends have introduced me to so many ways to have fun that require very little to no consumption. One of the most popular things to do where we live is go for walks in the evenings. Even kids will meet up and go for a walk. It's so simple. I love it!

You’ve made some plastic art yourself and with your family members. Any tips?

While I was making the book, I had the privilege of spending some time with Angela. She has spent a lot of time collecting plastic and processing it to make sculptures, so I asked her, "What's the best way to encourage families to collect plastic?" and she said, "Keep it fun!" Of course she encourages beach clean-ups, but they are hard work. She said most families find it more practical to play a game together for a few minutes before they leave their favorite spot in nature. At the end of the book, I suggest a few specific games you can play. My family likes to do something we call the 30-minute beach challenge, although you can do this challenge at a river or a lake or even at home with a bag of recycling. Here's what you do...

10 min. to pick up as much plastic as you can (go crazy!)

10 min. to look at all of the plastic you've collected and come up with an idea of what you want to make out of plastic (for example, a pirate, a mermaid, or a favorite sea creature)

10 min. to make your artwork from the plastic you've collected

To celebrate, take a photo and tag it with #washedashoreart on social media. Don't forget to properly dispose of the plastic you collected on your way home.

Image Credit: Kelly Crull

When you’re combing the beach, what are some of the most common plastic pieces you find?

If you've ever done a scavenger hunt for plastic at a local beach, river, or lake, you will know just how addictive it can be! You never know what treasures you're going to find. There's a little bit of everything. We've found action figures, dolls, soccer balls, and of course, free art supplies for making art. Some common items that come to mind are straws, bottle caps, plastic bottles, flip flops, food wrappers, toothbrushes, fishing rope, to name a few.

What is your favorite sea creature? Have you attempted to build one out of plastic?

I don't have a favorite sea creature, but I have made a few animals from ocean plastic, including this dolphin necklace. I'd like to make more, so I can give them to friends and family as gifts.

Image Credit: Kelly Crull

For more information about Kelly and his work, please visit his website or connect with him on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook and participate in the #washedashoreart challenge.



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