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Since 1999, Richard and Judith Lang have found countless ways to turn their huge collection of beach debris into extraordinary art. (Courtesy of Richard and Judith Lang)

Making Beautiful Art out of Beach Plastic

Artists Judith and Richard Lang comb the California beaches, looking for trash for their captivating, yet unsettling work

smithsonian.com

Judith Lang waves from a kelp pile on Kehoe Beach, shouting to her husband. “Here’s the Pick of the Day!”

The artist holds aloft her newfound treasure: the six-inch long, black plastic leg of an anonymous superhero toy. But did it come from Batman or Darth Vader? Only careful research will tell.

“We’ll google ‘black plastic doll leg,’” Richard Lang informs me, “and try to find out what it belonged to.”

In 1999, Richard and Judith had their first date on this Northern California beach. Both were already accomplished artists who had taught watercolor classes at the University of California and shown their work in San Francisco galleries. And both (unbeknown to each other) had been collecting beach plastic for years.

“This is a love story,” Richard says quietly. “Our passion is not only plastic but each other. We could never have imagined, on that day, what an incredible life would unfold—picking up other people’s garbage.”

It’s not just about picking up the plastic, but what he and Judith do with it. Since 1999, they’ve found countless ways to turn their huge collection of beach debris into extraordinary art. Partners and collaborators, they have created found-object works ranging from exquisite jewelry to mural-size photographs; from wall-mounted sculptures to, most recently, the coveted trophies awarded at the 2011 Telluride Mountainfilm Festival. Their work has appeared in exhibitions worldwide, from Singapore to San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art.

“Our hope is to make these artworks so valuable,” Judith jokes, “that wars will be fought to clean up these beaches.”

* * *

A curving expanse of sand, kelp and driftwood patrolled by peregrine falcons, Kehoe rests on the edge of the Point Reyes National Seashore. It’s also on the edge of the North Pacific Gyre—a slow-moving ocean vortex that carries trash in an immense circuit around the sea.

The stormy season between December and April is the best time to search the beach for washed-up plastic. “It comes from cruise ship dumping, trash in the gutter, picnickers, tsunamis, hunters, farmers…” Richard says, shaking his head. “It reminds us that there is no away in ‘throwaway’ culture.”

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