Some People’s Trash is Sarah Thornington’s Art

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Cape Cod ‘artivist’ cleans beaches, educates, and creates beauty from what she finds.

Editor’s note: All captions written by Sarah Thornington.

If we are to survive the current climate mess, the world needs a lot less plastic. And a lot more Sarah Thorningtons. Over the past five years, the West Yarmouth photographer and self-described “artivist” has single-handedly cleared thousands of pieces of plastic from her local beach and participated in group cleanups at others. She has been recognized for her work locally and nationally, including receiving the national volunteer Daily Point of Light award and the 2022 CARE for the Cape and Islands stewardship award. And she does it all with humor, humility, and her vibrant and engaging artwork.

Like many pet owners who live near the shore, Thornington regularly walks her dog along the beach near her house. Disturbed by the sight of trash along the shoreline, in 2019 she launched a year-long project to pick up plastic on her daily beach strolls and keep a running tally of what she collected. At first, she didn’t tell anyone — not even her husband and daughter. Her goal was modest: to pick up three to five items a day, which could work out to almost 2,000 pieces of trash by the end of the year. She reached her goal for the year in nine days, but kept going. And she hasn’t stopped.

Five years later, Thornington’s Instagram, @ebbthetide (formerly @ayearofplastic), pops with the colorful, often whimsical art she creates with her found plastic and other marine debris, along with her stop-motions of endangered species and fast-motion videos of massive cleanups and tallies. 

Thornington displays her mosaics and sculptures at libraries, cultural centers and galleries across the Cape, New England and beyond. She has delivered “dozens and dozens” of Zoom programs entitled “Can Art Save the Planet?” in Connecticut, Maryland and Virginia, which address ways we can all be better stewards of the planet. She is actively involved in Barnstable Clean Water Coalition programs and has permanent installations of her artwork in Chatham (at the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy) and Provincetown, as well as one on long-term loan at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown. She’s also on the staff of the Nauset Public Schools’ Sunburst Summer Steam Camp Academy for fourth through seventh graders, where, last summer, she worked with students to make a mural out of plastic bottle caps that they helped collect. Thornington claims she never set out to do any of this, beyond cleaning the beaches. “It all [just] evolved,” she says. 

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In her first “year of plastic,” February, 2019  through February, 2020, Thornington cleaned wherever she was, including England and the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. She missed only four days — one when she was sick, two traveling to and from England, and one when her mother passed away. By the end of the year, she had collected 21,000 pieces of plastic.

Given Thorington’s profession as a photographer, Instagram was a natural place for her to chronicle her project. “I knew I wanted it to be happy and perky and fun,” she says. Her artwork evolved from her collection. By the second week of cleanups, for example, she had so much ghost gear (lost, abandoned, or discarded fishing gear) and ghost rope that she taught herself to weave bowls, “because I didn’t know what else to do with it.” About a month later, she started making mosaics with bits of plastic. Larger-scale sculptures followed, including the shark (“Wilma”) she donated to the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy (made from abandoned flipflops, fishing and shellfishing gear and gloves, plastic cutlery, construction debris, balloons, toys, a fan belt and other miscellanea) and a mermaid (“Sylvia”), who wears ghost netting and boasts flowing locks of ghost rope in a matching shade of teal. She created a life-sized Atlantic puffin named “Hope” for her “Hope is Not Passive” tour, using zip ties, lobster strapping bands, children’s beach toys, Styrofoam and other plastic. 

Under the 2023 thematic umbrella of “Now You See Me,” Thornington made a series of short stop-motion videos, funded by grants from various sources including the Harwich Cultural Council, The Puffin Foundation, Ltd., and the Chatham Cultural Council featuring endangered Atlantic Hawksbill sea turtles, North Atlantic right whales, and piping plovers, the videos highlight these animals’ “superpowers” and explain why they are endangered and how people can help them and the planet. “Now You See Me” also includes three sculptures displayed  at pop-ups throughout the Cape and which will be shown at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod this spring. 

When I give talks and workshops, I always end by saying that the most important thing we can do for the planet is to find wonder in it: You protect what you love.

– Sarah Thornington

Working from the basement of her home, Thornington has taught herself most of the skills she’s needed for making her sculptures and mosaics. She credits her husband with teaching her to use a saw and says that he “makes my projects work for me,” pitching in as needed to drill holes and similar tasks. Thornington sells some pieces at shows and exhibits, but says she prices them high because, “They’re more valuable to me at a show for people to see, to make a statement.”

In 2019, Thornington met Laura Ludwig, manager of the Marine Debris and Plastics Program at the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) in Provincetown, at a summit co-sponsored by CCS and CARE for the Cape and Islands. Launched a little over a decade ago, Ludwig’s Fishing Gear Recovery Project has removed tons of marine debris from the bottom of Cape Cod Bay. “Laura is so supportive of artists using marine debris to deliver a message,” Thornington says. The two have become friends and collaborators. Thornington joined Ludwig’s volunteer Beach Brigade, which conducts beach cleanups along the Cape throughout the year and tallies its findings. (I, too, am a Beach Brigade volunteer.) And in late spring, the two spent a week on Cuttyhunk collecting “tons and tons” of lobster and fishing gear with Cornell students and artists. Last summer, loot collected during the cleanup was featured in art shows on Cuttyhunk and at the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park. For the Cuttyhunk show, Thornington made a quilt out of lobster escape hatches.

In 2023, Thornington changed the name of her project from “A Year of Plastic” to “Ebb the Tide,” to signify that “we need to ebb the plastic tide,” she explains. “Living on the shore and being a beach cleaner, I pay a lot of attention to the tides and what the tides bring in.” And though she’s a photographer and has described herself as a “marine debris artist,” she now feels that the term “artivist” more aptly describes who she is and what she’s doing. “‘Artivist’ encompasses it all. I’m taking action, trying to make my own little tiny difference in the world.” 

Find Sarah’s work on her Instagram @studiobysea.

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Andrea Pyenson
Andrea Pyenson
Andrea Pyenson is a food writer and editor based in Newton and Truro, Mass. She was co-author of three cookbooks with chef Andy Husbands and his barbecue teammate, Chris Hart, and helped edit The Boston Globe’s New England Seafood Cookbook.
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