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COASTSWEEP: The Cathartic Art of the Beach Cleanup

A Q&A with Marine Debris Sculptor, Mary Delmonaco
marine debris art

Mary Delmonaco, a self-taught artist and coastal activist, spends countless hours picking up marine debris on the coast (namely at Nantasket Beach) and turning bits of this plastic and other trash into funky character art and other aesthetic masterpieces. Her work inspired the COASTSWEEP Team to reach out and learn more about her interest in marine debris. And what we found was much more than a story about someone reducing trash on our shores—it is also a story about a cathartic journey that has healed both person and place.

Table of Contents

Q & A

First, let’s begin with how you came to care so deeply about the coast and ocean.

Growing up near the ocean, our family would always go to the beach—the beach is free and you could go no matter what day, time, or weather. Some of our favorite beaches were down in Wellfleet where we would go body surfing, boogie boarding, or regular surfing (not so much now because of the sharks). We also loved to go fishing or to the aquarium in the Woods Hole area. I always thought of the ocean as a magnet drawing me close, and I feel we are obligated to love and respect it, like Mother Earth. It may sound funny, but I find Mother Earth will give us what she wants…in fact, she gives me what she wants to give me on a daily basis—certain days I find things that I feel were meant for my art. In a sense, the ocean brings me peace and I can’t turn my back on it. As for my family, I have three grown kids now and they laugh about how as children they were only grounded if they missed a good wave (or ruined the whipped cream by releasing all the gas out of the canister…one of my pet peeves). They do think I’m a bit crazy for spending so much time picking up trash. And though they don’t do what I do, they will help me from time to time…even from afar—my daughter, who lives in Ohio, has pointed out what trash I missed over a facetime call.

What about your journey as an artist? Did you study art in school? How did it come about that you melded environmental issues and art together?

I am a self-taught artist, and what I consider a closet artist. (We’ll get to why she calls herself that in a moment.) I studied at Northeastern University for nursing and then worked at MassGeneral as a nurse. Unfortunately, I had a bad stretch of illness, including stroke, diabetes, and a general auto-immune disease that affected my eyes. These challenges prevented me from working at the hospital. Then I was diagnosed with melanoma, another hit—all within an 8-year period. It was then that I really turned to the ocean for my healing. I definitely miss nursing, but I had other callings. I started going out more frequently to the beach and picking up plastic and throwing it away. I noticed more and more plastic turning up on the coast. I started wondering what I could do with it and how I could teach people about the issue. I have always been artistic, but life, family, and kids had gotten in the way. But now I had this thought of creating art that could educate young people. I wanted to make animals, like leatherback turtles and right whales, to create the connection that shows people the impacts of marine debris on these species.

Can you explain a bit more about your artistic creations?

Well, I pick up everything in a big gallon bucket and while doing so, sometimes a piece of trash will remind me of something—like a piece of twisted blue plastic might make me think of a heron’s curving neck. And then I use these trash items to create educational art, like Harold the Heron. I go to the “store”—that is what I call Nantasket Beach—to find items to pick up and use. I do some research, too, such as looking for lobster trap tags, which indicate how long this plastic has been floating and where it comes from. I’ve seen tags from Newfoundland, St Lawrence, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts—all with the year, color codes, and zones where these traps were allowed. I don’t see anything from Rhode Island or anything south, since the currents seem to take the plastics here from the north. Probably the oldest tag I’ve seen since I started making the art is from 1997. Other interesting tags include one I found from a New Brunswick sustainable farming company. Of all the lobster tags I find, about 80% have been cut…and due to the years floating (1997-2018), they aren’t reusable anymore. Harold’s head is made of pieces of these tags that still have the dates visible so people can recognize how long these plastics have been out there in our waters or on the shore.

Toys even have date stamps, like barbie dolls. Harold has a vintage Lego Little People—and we know those are old. My favorite bird, Priscilla the Puffin, is made from what I found that I pieced together for her to take shape—she is all plastic, with a yellow detergent bottle for the body, a shovel for the beak, ear pods for eyes, and other things like a Wendy’s cup and Legos (see photo below). Other characters are made with things like shot gun shells, which I find a lot of, and other common items, like netting and straws.

Do you consider yourself an activist? Do you present these artistic pieces to school groups, on a website, or any other avenue to raise awareness of the marine debris problem?

So far, I have gone to the school library and also been in a local art show… and I might consider doing more of these events. I also created an I-SPY list for kids since they are the ones I really want to teach. Generally, I’m not too computer savvy, but I’ve been better about putting my message out on social media, such as Instagram, Facebook, and I just signed up for Twitter. Given all that, I primarily do this artwork for myself and that is why I consider myself a closet artist. Oh, I also have been making high tide sticks out of birch wood—these help to turn over seaweed and move debris to find small bits of trash. I typically make them as presents for friends and family. I’m just not a marketer, or in it for the money. I make these things for myself, as a closet artist.

It appears that you have a certain methodology and a particular motto associated with how you go about picking up trash at the shore. Can you share with us what that is?

My motto is: one pound of plastic, one beach, one person. If every person who ever went to the beach did this, or just picked up one item, it would make a huge difference. I even do this for inland lakes—I always feel inclined to pick up any plastic that I see. Basically, I can’t leave a body of water without picking up at least one piece of trash, not to mention one piece of sea glass. I am careful though—I handle needles in a separate container…I have to be careful considering the challenges I’ve had with my immune system.

And for my methodology, when I go to the beach, I first stop and look around. Sometimes it makes me want to cry. I feel so overwhelmed…where do I start, how much can I pick up in a day? I realize I need to limit myself. On a given day, I might look for certain items, like kids toys, shotgun shells, or lighters. Then the next day, I might focus on straws, bait bags, and bottle caps. On another day, I might decide to pick up only red items or blue items. You can’t do it all in one day. One thing I always do is pick up the tiny stuff near the high tide mark so that it won’t get washed back out to the sea. But all of this is too big of a job for one person. There is never a day without tons of trash that has washed back in…it must be related to the ocean currents and this location at Nantasket Beach. I particularly like going out after a northeaster—loads of interesting stuff washes ashore. Speaking of the currents, I’ve heard that some lobster tags even end up in the UK…they must follow the North Atlantic current. And those wastewater treatment plant discs…you know the ones that were released from New Hampshire back in 2011—I’m still finding them on Nantasket Beach. Oh, and then there was a glass bottle that I threw into the ocean with a note about thirty years ago. It was found two years later in Ireland! But I can’t believe I threw a bottle in the ocean…

But again, even with all the trash out there and being a little overwhelmed, I do get benefits from doing these beach cleanups. With all that walking and bending and picking up trash, I get plenty of exercise and I feel great. I now have lower blood sugar, a healthier cardiovascular system, am in a good mental state, and am feeling so much more healthy. I feel like this process of going out the shore and connecting is a form of physical and mental therapy. I am doing something to help, while mother nature is helping me. And not to mention, my doctors are impressed with my progress…and they also learn a lot about plastics in the ocean during our zoom calls when they see my characters, like Harold and Priscilla, in the background. But, I always wonder if I am being charged for those conversations!

May we share some photos of your artistic creations on this blog? And if so, what are a few of your favorites?
funky marine debris art characters

Top left: Tiny Leatherback Turtle - made from shot gun shells and a fake plastic plant that washed up; Bottom left: Tiny Right Whale made with fishing twine; Right: Phoebe the Pheasant/Duck - eating a fishing lure and sporting a necklace made out of a Ralph Lauren plastic tag that actually contained duck down and feathers

puffin and pelican marine debris art

Left: Pricilla the Puffin - made with various forms of plastic trash, including a detergent bottle, a shovel, and a shredded plastic cup; Right: Percy the Pelican - 99% of Percy is made from children’s toys

Harold the Heron marine debris art

Harold the Heron - made with trap tag pieces, bottle caps, and many other forms of plastic

Lastly, can you offer three key things that people can do to make a difference for the coasts and oceans?
  1. Make good choices for what you bring to the beach and bring back out. I never understand why people will leave a plastic bucket or shovel, thinking that someone else will use it—it just ends up as trash on the beach. So, don’t leave anything on the beach.
  2. Follow the motto—1pound, 1beach, 1person. If every person who visited a seashore or lakefront could pick up even just one item, imagine the results. And then I think a helpful idea would be to create containers made out of plexiglass specifically for the plastic debris. The plexiglass would allow people to see it all so they can recognize the plastic problem, and the bins could be a certain size to be able to easily quantify the amount, and this data could be recorded. I’ve heard some beaches have buckets and grabbers at stations, like in Australia. These could be simple practices we promote here.
  3. Use beach cleanups as a form of exercise and therapy for your physical and mental health. I’ve heard about the practice of plogging (jogging and picking up trash). I choose to walk, but same benefits. I’ve had two heart attacks in the past and the doctors recommended that I get more exercise. So I use beach and plastic pickup for exercise…and it doesn’t feel like exercise. It also improves my mental health by simply being outside. That’s my medicine for treating all sorts of things, from depression to heart health.

We would like to thank Mary for her relentless pursuit in keeping our coasts and oceans clean, producing educational works of art, and sharing what she does with our coastal audience. Check out more of Mary’s art, along with a bit of family life, on her Instagram at 1pound1beach1person.

Visit the COASTSWEEP website to find out how you can join the cause and help keep Massachusetts beaches clean by volunteering for an existing cleanup or organizing an event of your own. And for more about the sources and impacts of marine debris and how you can help solve this problem, see COASTSWEEP - More on Marine Debris.

Note: If you find intact fishing gear (such as lobster pots or buoys), or fragments of fishing gear that contain identification numbers, do not remove the gear. Instead, note any identification numbers and report them to the Massachusetts Environmental Police (MEP) Dispatcher at (617) 626-1650. If you find fishing gear debris with no identification number that is clearly damaged beyond use as fishing gear, such debris may be removed and disposed of or recycled. Examples include fragments of gear, frayed rope, or a rusted wire trap that is smashed beyond salvage. If you are in doubt about whether fishing gear debris is salvageable for use in fishing, contact MEP as described above. For more about lost fishing gear, see CZ-Tip - Learn About Lobsters, Lost Gear, and Local Efforts to Prevent Marine Debris.

Also, please be cautious with hazardous items, such as syringes/needles, metal drums, potentially live fireworks, and bottle bombs (capped plastic bottles with liquid inside—typically brown liquid, sometimes containing bits of aluminum foil or other objects). Please mark the area and contact the appropriate personnel, such as the local or state authority for the beach, to notify them of the location.

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