Almost half of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is made of ghost net, industrial fishing net lost in the ocean, according to an article published in Scientific Reports. What’s to be done when half the plastic in the ocean was designed for one specific purpose?
For Pacific University graduate Emily Miller, the answer was clear: make art with it.
That was the goal of Ghost Net Landscape, an exhibit shown in Pacific’s Kathrin Cawein art gallery through the month of October. Miller, the artist behind the exhibit, describes it as a “collaborative, interactive installation transforming marine debris into art.” Students were invited to take a portion of ghost net Miller had collected and turn it into an art piece. “Every time I do one of these shows, the idea is that I don’t take anything leftover home,” she said.
Miller’s inspiration for the exhibit came from her slow realization of how much of a problem ghost net was. “My grandparents live on the east coast, and I moved here from Kauai, and my family’s from California,” Miller said. “Everywhere I went on the coast, it seemed like I found this stuff.”
The idea for Ghost Net Landscape came to Miller during a vacation in early 2018 to her home island of Kauai—specifically during a visit to her local chapter of ocean protection nonprofit Surfrider. “Surfrider Kauai is collecting 10,000 pounds [of ghost net] a month,” she said. “I did not realize how much they were collecting on my island.”
Surfrider Kauai began shipping Miller ghost net. She began working with local state parks to collect over 1,000 pounds of rope for the exhibition, she said. While planning for the show, Miller moved into a house with a two-car garage. “So the first thing I did with it, clearly, was fill it with rope,” she said.
Moving the rope out of the garage and into the exhibit proved to be a challenge. “It happened to be raining that day, so it wasn’t the greatest time,” Miller’s assistant and Art senior Sabrina Spurlock said. “A lot of the net and rope get tangled together, so it just becomes one massive pile. I haven’t made anything in the gallery because I got kind of tired of touching all the rope.”
Beyond the problem of moving the rope, Miller had trouble holding class groups in the gallery. “Having 40 people in here at a time was kind of hectic,” she said. “The first day I had class, I tried to teach techniques. That really did not work.” Instead, she said, it was much easier to assign students to make something simple—a fish—and let them figure out how to make it themselves. The result was a collection of fish hanging from the ceiling, exclusive to the Pacific version of the exhibit. “Everybody made something totally different,” Miller said.
Open-creation led to a lot of creative highlights, according to artists. “We had someone crochet a fish,” Spurlock said—but for her, the highlight of the exhibition was the imaginative works of children. “The younger kids are just so excited to see what this material can do,” said Spurlock. “They have a great imagination, and they can just envision what this piece of rope is, which doesn’t actually look like anything to most of us.”
But creativity isn’t the only point of the exhibit; professor Michelle Larkins’ Our Global Environment class gained perspective from the piece. “I think seeing what seemed like an enormous amount of plastic, and realizing it was only a fraction of a net that is part of a global marine debris issue helped [my class] to connect in a more profound way,” wrote Larkins in an email.
That perspective is one of the reasons Miller created the exhibit in the first place. “We hear a lot about plastic straws and plastic bags because that’s something we see in our everyday lives,” Miller said. “But the fishing net is sort of a hidden issue for most people.”