Marine debris forms a message

Jennifer Mathis is spearheading the building of two sculptures using trash collected from the local Beach Sweep in September to raise awareness of protecting the sea from trash. This skate will be installed at the South Carolina Aquarium. Mathis’ daughters Elsa, 14, Maya, 9, and husband Mike Cline, put the finishing touches on the skate Monday.

Local awareness of marine debris and the destruction it causes may get a boost thanks to an art project recently completed by a Mount Pleasant designer and mother of two.

Last week, Jennifer Mathis and art students at the Charleston County School of the Arts put the finishing touches on a 7-foot-long skate, which looks like a stingray, and a 9-foot-tall brown pelican.

Both are made out of aquatic litter -- sorted and cleaned -- from 1,500 pounds collected during the 23rd annual S.C. Beach Sweep/River Sweep on Sept. 17. The trash was a mere fraction of the 38,800 pounds of trash collected by 3,000 volunteers at 150 sites along the Palmetto State's coastline.

The sculptures are made from an array of trash, from plastic drink bottles to Crocs, toy soldiers and shotgun shell casings.

The idea for the sculpture project came during a summer trip when Mathis and her family saw the exhibit "Washed Ashore: Plastics, Sea Life and Art" at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausilito, Calif. The traveling exhibit features elaborate, large-scale sculptures of sea animals made out of debris collected from the Pacific.

"From far away, I looked at the sculptures and thought, 'Oh, that's so cool,' " recalled Mathis. "But when you get closer, you get disgusted because you realize what it is and why it is."

The exhibit stuck with Mathis, who envisioned duplicating the project on a smaller scale in Charleston. She got the OK "to steal the idea" from the exhibit's artist, Angela Haseltine Pozzi.

With school starting and Beach Sweep just weeks away, Mathis started hatching the project, which she has documented on a blog titled "From here to Sargasso: Turning Sea Debris into Art and Getting an Education Along the Way." The Sargasso Sea is in the North Atlantic and debris tends to collect there due to prevailing currents.

Mathis recruited Ben Moore, her daughter's art teacher at the School of the Arts, to help with the project, starting with the design. Moore got eighth-grade art students to present about 18 designs for the sculptures and colleagues narrowed the designs down to two, based on potential visual impact and the feasibility of building them.

Armed with a small grant from the S.C. Green Fund of the Coastal Community Foundation to cover expenses, Mathis asked local metal artist Sean Ahern to build skeletal frames for the sculptures, which would be covered in chicken wire for the surface to attach the litter. Since then, students, volunteers and Mathis' family, including younger daughter Maya Cline and husband Mike Cline, put in hundreds of hours meticulously preparing and tying trash onto the sculpture.

The skate sculpture, coordinated by Mathis, already has found a home -- at the stringray touch tank area of the South Carolina Aquarium.

The aquarium's exhibits coordinator, Kevin Kampwerth, expects the sculpture will be suspended from wires in a manner to look like the skate is "banking off the wall" before next spring. In the meantime, the staff will prepare an explanation, or interpretation, of the piece.

"It is such a great project and is aligned with our mission to conserve our ocean resources," said Kamp- werth. "We also have a lot of great artwork (at the aquarium), and this will add to it."

After the holidays, Mathis will work on finding the pelican, primarily made by School of the Arts students, a home in a public space. She envisions it in a park or a visible location at one of the local beaches.

In February, the pelican will make its public debut, appropriately, at the Southeastern Wildlife Expo.

Mathis said she hopes the project ultimately will prompt people to reconsider how consumer objects are used and discarded. Plastic drink bottles are unnecessary. Reusable shopping bags eliminates the need for single-use plastic bags. Beach items, such as toys, flip-flops and balls, should be removed before the tide carries them into the ocean.

Susan Ferris Hill, communications director at the S.C. Sea Grant Consortium and coastal coordinator of S.C. Beach Sweep, thinks the sculptures are a "wonderful way to extend the Beach Sweep beyond the one-day cleanup."

"I think the sculptures will make people stop and think -- think about what they buy, how much they throw away, how items may be able to be repurposed or reused," said Hill. "And then there are the people who will be astounded that all of this debris was just out there, in the marsh, on the beach, on the river banks ... What if we didn't have volunteer-driven litter cleanups? What would our communities look like then?"