Alchemy, the medieval ancestor of modern chemistry, rested on the assumption that matter was transmutable. Many alchemists spent their lives in pursuit of a catalyst that could render lead into gold. Given that lead was cheap, plentiful, and largely inert, these seekers were aiming to create something precious out of a material that was, for all intents and purposes, of no real value. Lead was as close as something could get to being a non-entity while simultaneously hovering only three protons away from gold, that curious yellow metal that defined value itself.

While creating something rare and beautiful from a base medium would indeed be an impressive feat, there’s something even more compelling about turning an actual negative into a positive. From an environmentalist’s perspective, the dire state of our modern world demands that we strive for a greater degree of efficacy in everything we do if we are to make a difference, and alchemy would be no exception. This is one of the reasons that the Washed Ashore Gallery, an interactive art and education center in the small town of Bandon, Oregon, is so impressive. The alchemical process taking place at Washed Ashore is less akin to the transmutation of lead into gold than it is to the creation of precious metals from, say, Polonium-210, or some other nasty isotope that would make your skin fall off.

This is because the Washed Ashore Gallery works entirely with a single substance: recovered ocean plastic. To source their medium, gallery supporters remove thousands of pounds of trash from local beaches. After the waste plastic is sorted and sterilized, it is offered up to a stable of talented artists who transform it into powerful oceanic imagery. As such, not only is the gallery catalyzing the creation of a net positive, it is eliminating an existing negative from the environment in the process. This is more than just building value from neutral building blocks -- it’s a double impact, reducing harm and creating benefit at the same time.

The gallery space itself is overwhelming. Hundreds of pieces of art populate the hall in vibrant washes of color. A host of masks adorn the walls, gazing relentlessly upon immense free-standing sculptures of turtles, sea stars, and reef fish, each created from thousands of individual scraps of waste plastic collected from Oregon beaches. Additionally, many of the sculptures created at Washed Ashore (some of which are the size of a pick-up truck) are now displayed in other public venues around the world to raise awareness of the ocean plastics problem. Through the alchemy of art, this striking collection of misplaced polymers has become a monument to marine biodiversity.

Beyond these already impressive efforts, the team at Washed Ashore also curates an interactive space for visitors to create their own artwork using ocean plastic. Children are especially welcome at the gallery, which offers art classes, guided tours, and book reading events; they can even take home whatever they make as a reminder of their experience, and as a testament to the gravity of the ocean plastics problem. 

I believe in the power of art to provoke change when it comes to our entrenched behaviors. It strikes a different chord than the experience of reading words on a page. This is why a mere article (like this one) will never create the deep heart impact of a visit to a place like the Washed Ashore Gallery, which uses an alchemy all its own to transform curious visitors into dedicated ocean conservationists.